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Neskantaga First Nations Chief Chris Moonias, seen here on Oct. 26, 2020, says a lack of housing in Neskantaga forces members to leave the community.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

A remote First Nation in Northern Ontario has declared a state of emergency for its off-reserve members in Thunder Bay after an outbreak among them in the city, where COVID-19 infections continue to surge.

In a press release Wednesday, Chief Chris Moonias of Neskantaga First Nation said 12 off-reserve members in Thunder Bay have confirmed infections, affecting six per cent of the 217 members living in the city.

Chief Moonias is asking Indigenous Services Canada to provide emergency housing for at least 14 of its members who are among those without adequate housing in Thunder Bay and at higher risk of becoming infected. He says a lack of housing in Neskantaga forces members to leave the community.

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Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said his department is prepared to offer support to the community and has been in close contact with Thunder Bay authorities as the cases rise. COVID-19 outbreaks have affected the city’s homeless population and schools.

Associate Deputy Minister Valerie Gideon said the department has funding available for First Nations affected by COVID-19 while living away from their communities.

Chief Moonias said immunizing First Nation members living in Thunder Bay against the virus has to be a priority as soon as more vaccines are available. Ontario has identified all Indigenous adults as among the next priority groups in phase one of its vaccine rollout.

In a COVID-19 update Wednesday, Mr. Miller said Ontario’s Ornge air-ambulance service and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority in Northern Ontario are close to vaccinating 70 per cent of members in 31 remote, fly-in First Nations, including Neskantaga, with the first dose.

Manitoba has opened up vaccinations to the general public, with appointments now available to people 95 and older and First Nations people older than 75.

Mr. Miller said the department is working closely with the National Association of Friendship Centres and provinces and territories in the vaccine rollout for Indigenous adults in urban cities and towns across the country.

“Urban Indigenous populations face many if not the same systemic barriers to accessing services of those living in isolated or remote communities or on reserve,” said Mr. Miller.

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Jocelyn Formsma, the executive director for the National Association of Friendship Centres in Ottawa, has been advocating for safe and accessible vaccination clinics for urban Indigenous populations.

She said that because the vaccines are allocated by provinces and territories to local public-health authorities, Friendship Centres are pushing for provincial vaccine rollouts to include a plan for urban Indigenous people.

She said it’s encouraging to see vaccine clinics for urban Indigenous adults being set up in places such as the Wabano Centre in Ottawa – a result of local public-health authorities partnering with urban Indigenous organizations. However, she added that there need to be vaccine clinics in rural locations, as well, and that Friendship Centres have the resources to facilitate those clinics and ensure that all Indigenous adults have appropriate access.

Mr. Miller said that overall COVID-19 case counts in First Nations continue to decline and that more than 103,000 vaccine doses have been administered in about 450 First Nations, Inuit and territorial communities.

Tom Wong, Chief Medical Officer of Public Health for Indigenous Services, said that there have been no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variants in Northern Manitoba. However, Dr. Wong said that it’s a matter of when, not if, the variants arrive in First Nations and that redoubling public-health efforts will be key to stopping the spread to prevent outbreaks.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the location of the Wabano Centre.
Editor’s note: The headline has also been changed to correct the name of the First Nation.

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