Isolation has so far protected many of Canada’s remote Indigenous communities from the coronavirus. Far from the big cities where the virus is taking the heaviest toll, they have largely been able to shield themselves from its spread. But isolation is also their greatest weakness. If the virus gets in, they are a long way from help. With crowded households, many residents in poor health and limited medical facilities, they could be devastated.
Few people know this better than Harvey Yesno. The veteran Indigenous leader from Eabametoong First Nation in Northern Ontario has spent his long career trying to build up his community and others like it. Conditions are still a long way from where he would like them to be. So, while hoping for the best, he is bracing for the worst.
“We have done everything we can to get ready for the worst-case scenario with the facilities we have, which is not very much,” he said on Friday.
Eabametoong imposed a lockdown on April 1, limiting movement in and out of the community of 1,600, located 360 kilometres by air from the nearest city, Thunder Bay.
It has imposed a curfew to discourage people from gathering or visiting. It is warning people to wash their hands and practise social distancing. It has cancelled meetings and workshops. The grocery store is limiting how many shoppers come in at one time and the nursing station is screening people at the door. The pilots and baggage handlers for the small planes that shuttle in and out of the community airstrip are wearing masks and gloves. The elementary school is closed.
Despite all these measures, Eabametoong now has its first COVID-19 case, a man in his early forties, the chief said on Sunday evening.
‘A lot of people are scared’
For Indigenous communities that in the past suffered through bouts of smallpox, tuberculosis and other ailments, the threat of communicable disease is especially troubling. “I think a lot of people are scared,” said Louis Oskineegish, 62, who is in charge of maintenance at the nursing station. “They don’t really understand exactly what is going to happen.” He said that as recently as a week ago, there were lots of people out and about in the community’s icy streets. “Now, I don’t see anybody, so maybe people are starting to listen.”
Claudette Chase, a doctor who visits Eabametoong regularly to treat patients, said that to cope with the virus, “I need to know there are the necessary tools in the nursing station and right now we don’t have them.” She said there is already a shortage of air ambulances to move patients to hospital, and in the case of an outbreak the ambulances would have to be thoroughly disinfected, slowing service.
Mr. Yesno has been going on the community radio station to ask residents to stay vigilant. “I’m saying, ‘Do not fear, but we have to be cautious,’” he said on the phone from Thunder Bay, where he lives with his family. The chief is not travelling to Eabametoong for now given that he is 64 and so in a vulnerable age group.
“Our big challenge up there is overcrowding," he said. “We are very concerned about that.” The average number of people per household in Eabametoong is more than six. One three-bedroom house has 18 people living in it.
Housing conditions are a challenge in the first place. A 2018 report found that 65 per cent of the 235 dwellings required renovation or replacement. Close to 90 per cent suffer from mould because water from the soggy ground gets into the basements. Several have been lost to fire in the past year.
Poor and overcrowded housing is just one of the vulnerabilities that Eabametoong has in a time of pandemic. Touring the community one day last fall, Mr. Yesno showed The Globe and Mail the array of problems he is trying to fix.
A boil-water advisory has been in place for close to 20 years. The community is keeping it till a new, $12-million filtration plant passes every test. The diesel generators that provide the power to keep the lights on are being replaced. The sewer system threatens to back up.
Like a suburban community in the south, Eabametoong has a sports arena, baseball field, school and grocery store, all laid out on a neat pattern of wide streets.
But typical Canadian communities are connected to the cellphone grid, the provincial electrical grid, the municipal water system and sewer network. Eabametoong has none of those connections. It has to run its own miniature power plant, its own water system, its own wastewater disposal.
Each one of those systems has grown more sophisticated and more complicated over the years. Maintaining them is a constant struggle.
Eabametoong lies roughly at the centre of the huge, lightly populated expanse between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay, an area as big as France. The Hudson’s Bay Co. set up a trading post on Eabamet Lake in 1890. It was called Fort Hope, the name still used by many for the community.
Mr. Yesno grew up in a log house on the shore of the lake. His father ran a small store that sold food, rifles, canoes and other supplies. Customers often paid him in furs from their traplines.
The son of an Indigenous woman and a Scotsman who worked for the HBC, he had 15 children. Harvey was the ninth.
The family legend is that he was all blue when he was born, until his father brought him to life with a slap on the behind – “my first spanking.”
When he got big enough, his job was to haul pails of water uphill to the house when he got off school, a trip that seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Water treatment consisted of straining out the bugs with a cloth.
The community as it is today started coming together in the early 1960s. Two new houses made from local lumber and insulated with sawdust went up in 1962. It got a new school in 1967, a power plant in 1970 and a nursing station in 1971. Work on the airstrip started in 1973, telephone service came in 1975 and a police station opened in 1976. Sewers and running water came in the early 1990s.
Yesno a long-time leader
Mr. Yesno was first elected to lead Eabametoong in 1978, when he was only 22. He had studied airplane electronics at college in Thunder Bay, but came back home to take a job as an economic development officer. Then the chief of the time resigned. Young Harvey quickly wrote up a platform, had it translated into Ojibwe, ran for the office and won.
When then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau decided to patriate the Constitution, the chief travelled to London to help make sure negotiators respected Indigenous treaties and rights. One day, wearing a bowler hat and long, braided hair, he climbed onto a bronze lion at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. A bobby approached and told him, “Young man, you can’t be up there.” He got down.
Mr. Yesno went on to work for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, a regional grouping of Indigenous communities, where he headed a fund that helped Indigenous businesses. In 2012, he was elected to lead NAN as Grand Chief. Now he is back again as chief of Eabametoong, facing many of the same issues he encountered in the 1970s and 1980s.
How do you get pure, potable water from a wild northern lake? How do you dispose of your wastewater without polluting that lake? How do you make reliable electrical power? How do you build and maintain decent housing at an affordable cost? As Mr. Yesno explained when he showed a visitor around, each presents daunting problems in an environment such as this.
New water plant faces obstacles
Take water first. Many residents have grown to adulthood without drinkable tap water.
The new water plant was supposed to solve the problem. The big blue building on the shore of the lake took two years to build. It uses chlorination and ultraviolet light to purify the lake water, and chemical coagulants to remove minute particles. It has a backup generator to keep it running if the power fails, as it often has.
Getting such a complex facility up and running isn’t simple. The chief says its designers drew up plans for the high-tech plant “on a desk somewhere.” He says he had to write a nasty e-mail because a little part that kept the computers running when the power failed wasn’t installed.
Sewage system prone to overflow
Now consider sewers. The lift station that moves wastewater to a sewage lagoon was built too small, so the system was prone to overflow. Engineers enlarged it, adding a second chamber, but it overflowed again in January. The station is only 60 metres from the lake and the chief worries that it could spill over yet again as spring advances.
The community’s power problems stem from its aging, diesel-fuelled generating station next to the airstrip. Power failures and surges would routinely knock out the internet or turn off the lights. Contractors are replacing the generators, a process that Mr. Yesno says is nine years overdue. The bearings on the oldest generator failed this winter.
With each of its main life-support systems acting up – water, sewers and power – Eabametoong declared a state of emergency last July. But emergency seems the wrong word for problems that are so common and so chronic.
The pandemic complicates all the difficulties that come with being a remote community. In normal times, there is constant traffic between Eabametoong and the world outside. In the winter, many people take the winter road to visit family in Thunder Bay or other places, do their shopping, watch hockey games or go to medical appointments. But that road, built over frozen lakes and swamps, is only open for a few weeks in the coldest weather. The winter road season is ending now, leaving the community reliant on flights from the airstrip.
Flying lifeline looking more precarious
Teachers from outside fly in to teach at the school and doctors to work in the nursing station. Officers fly in to staff the police outpost. Judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers fly in – often together on the same small plane – to handle cases. Residents fly out for medical treatment or job training in Thunder Bay. Young people must live outside the community for their final grades of school.
All that movement is slowing down now. Travelling on a cramped plane these days does not seem wise and locals say the number of flights is being cut back due to reduced traffic. Maintenance contractors aren’t visiting unless there is an emergency.
Diesel fuel and groceries are still coming in, but the community’s lifeline is looking more precarious and it could grow more so if the COVID-19 crisis across Canada drags on for months. Mr. Yesno is particularly worried about Eabametoong’s elders, many of whom are in poor health and rely on visits from caregivers. Rates of diabetes and autoimmune diseases are high.
He is appealing to government officials for help, trying to “raise the bar of awareness” about the special problems of places such as this: overcrowding, unreliable tap water and – at a time when communication is of the essence – substandard internet and other telecommunications links. The community, he says, is like a crowded room. “It’s almost as if you are in a confined place with a lot of people. That’s the situation we are in with remote communities.”
15 confirmed cases in Indigenous communities
The federal government has put aside $305-million to help Indigenous peoples cope with the COVID-19 crisis. The Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller, said on Thursday that there were 15 confirmed cases of the disease in Indigenous communities.
Mr. Yesno says the mood in Eabametoong is “up and down.” While there is “an elevated level of anxiety,” most people are getting by. To keep spirits up, people are going on the radio station to sing songs or tell stories about the old days.
Community leaders are encouraging residents to get out on the land, even providing gas, tents and other equipment to help them do it. This is the time of the annual spring hunt, when people go out in search of moose, geese and ducks.
Despite all his frustrations about the state of the infrastructure, the chief has big plans for the community. He wants a new school to replace the aging old one and a seniors’ home for the elders. He wants to set up a greenhouse, run on solar power, to grow vegetables, which are terribly expensive to fly in from outside. He wants to replace the landfill outside of town, which is full and overrun by trash-loving bears in summer. He wants to build a new winter road that would take a shorter route to the nearest big town.
Improving this community, and others like it, has been his life’s work. First, though, he has to help keep it safe through this unprecedented crisis.
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