Angus ‘stunned’ by feds’ response to First Nation’s plea for help

As COVID cases increase in the Bearskin Lake First Nation, frustration with the federal government’s slow response to send in the military is growing.

“We are all pretty much stunned,” said Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus. “After we heard (the government was) sending in the troops, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and went ok, we can get through this. Clearly they’re (Bearskin Lake) on their own.”

Bearskin Lake is a remote community of about 400 people located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. It is one of 49 First Nations for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario.

On Friday Angus, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin, and other Indigenous leaders held a virtual press conference asking the federal government to send in the military as Bearskin Lake was “almost at the breaking point” from a COVID outbreak.

READ MORE: Bearskin Lake First Nation almost ‘at breaking point,’ says chief

Kamenawatamin and nearly all the local council members now have COVID. As of Monday, the community is reporting 17 new cases with 209 affected.

On Sunday, Ottawa announced four local Canadian Rangers were out of isolation and were assisting with logistical support, ground transportation and helping with the delivery of food, firewood, water, and other supplies. Most homes in the community rely on firewood for heat and about 75 per cent of the community does not have access to water, Angus said.

Canadian Rangers are part of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves working in remote, isolated and coastal communities.

An additional two-to-three local Rangers ended their isolation on Monday and will assist the community, Daniel Minden, spokesperson for Defence Minister Anita Anand, told iPolitics in an email.

“More local Rangers are expected to end COVID-19-related isolation in the coming days, and as they end their isolation, they will also be assisting the community in the management of this outbreak,” Minden wrote.

When pressed on how many Rangers will be assisting and when, Minden said there were “no other numbers to share.”

Angus says the Rangers alone will not be able to provide the support Bearskin Lake and other First Nations communities in Northern Ontario need to manage the COVID outbreak.

“Rangers will be overwhelmed very quickly because they are basically the local force … Bearskin could be the first of many (more communities in need),” Angus said.

On Friday, Charles Fox, an Indigenous community-liaison officer, told reporters during the virtual press conference, that Bearskin Lake needed about 60 soldiers to help it get through the emergency.

According to Nishnawbe Aski Nation, there were 357 active cases in 17 of those communities.

In addition to Bearskin, two other northern communities have declared a state of emergency, Ginoogaming and Aroland. On Thursday, Attawapiskat First Nation also requested Ranger support to assist with its increasing COVID case count.

Angus says the government failed to act for nearly two weeks as the community struggled to contain the virus, and criticizes its response after Indigenous leaders asked Ottawa for help.

“What I fear is (the) government (is) sending a message to Indigenous people that they simply don’t count for much and the government will wait them out.” Angus said.

“I feel that is a really terrible message to send when we have to show that all citizens are deserving of proper medial and logistical support in times of a pandemic.”


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