Northern Manitoba chiefs voice support for new remote First Nation travel restrictions

Leaders in some northern Manitoba First Nations are relieved a new provincial order will restrict movement in and out of remote communities where a COVID-19 outbreak could be devastating.

Travel to and from First Nations above the 53rd parallel will be restricted as of Friday, Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced Thursday. 

Exceptions include those going to work, delivering goods or providing essential services. People returning to home communities are also exempted, but they must self-isolate for two weeks. 

The change is in effect until May 1, and those caught breaking the rules could face penalties, said Roussin.

“I am very happy about it,” said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

“It will minimize the potential for the virus coming into First Nations.”

MKO represents 26 northern First Nations, many of them remote fly-in communities. Several declared regional states of emergency in recent weeks.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said he’s choosing to stay optimistic about the possibilities under Bill C-92, but he still has concerns about implementation. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Settee was among many First Nation leaders who have called for stricter rules to limit travel, as was Marcel Moody.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” said Moody, chief of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, formerly known as Nelson House. “We’ve been actually lobbying for that through the MKO.”

‘It’s a different world’

MKO also released some of its own strict guidelines earlier than the provincial government, including a recommendation to limit gathering sizes on remote First Nations to 10 or fewer at a time when the province still permitted gatherings of up to 50.

First Nations schools also closed indefinitely before other Manitoba schools.

One month into the pandemic, Moody said people in his community of 3,000 are understandably getting anxious as they’re cooped up indoors, but he said most appreciate that it’s for their own safety.

He said crowded living and underlying health conditions make people in remote First Nations like his particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

Nelson House, Man., is 660 kilometres north of Winnipeg. (www.nhea.info)

Moody said he and other leaders are trying their best to support those who are struggling with mental health issues right now.

“It’s a different world out there and it’s scary,” he said.

“It’s been tough — there’s a lot of pressure on leadership to do this. I mean, it’s something we think we must do to prevent our people from dying, and at the end of the day I think it would have devastating effects if we get this virus in our community.”

The measures have also hit First Nations-owned business hard in the north, he said. Though business is doing well at NCN’s grocery stores in Thompson and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, its hotel, restaurant, gas station and other businesses in Thompson are closed.

“It has a huge impact, both economically, and culturally and emotionally for our people,” he said.

“We’ve lost millions and millions of dollars and if this thing continues … we could seriously put our businesses at risk.”

‘The sooner the better’

Norway House Cree Nation Chief Larson Anderson also welcomed the tightening of travel rules for his community of 6,500.

“We’ve got to do what we can to ensure Manitoba stays safe,” said Anderson.

For weeks already, Norway House has barred visitors from entering the community and required anyone returning home to self-isolate for two weeks.

There haven’t been any known cases in First Nations north of the 53rd parallel yet and it must stay that way, he said.

“The Pallister government shows signs of keeping that virus away from our First Nations and personally we support that,” said Anderson, adding there’s one more thing he’d like to see.

“It sure would be nice to get a little more financial assistance from the province,” he said.

“We’re doing everything using federal funding, but we’re also servicing off-reserve members and non-First Nation members who live near our community.”

Though there is support for the travel restrictions, Settee said he would’ve liked to have seen them come into effect earlier.

“The sooner the better.”

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