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One of the most feared scenarios of the COVID-19 pandemic is occurring right now in Northern Ontario: The highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has gripped the isolated community of Bearskin Lake First Nation, and is now threatening many others.

As of Thursday, Bearskin, an Oji-Cree nation about 425 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont., was grappling with 187 cases in more than 50 houses, according to Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Intergenerational families are struggling to quarantine in overcrowded homes, with children and young ones underfoot.

Two more communities have declared their own states of emergency: Ginoogaming First Nation and Aroland First Nation, which are about 300 km northeast of Thunder Bay. Ginoogaming had 28 positive cases, and at Aroland there were 30, with only one nurse on hand to help, according to provincial briefing numbers.

This is all happening at the height of winter, and temperatures in the North are hovering around -34 C. Isolated residents are in desperate need of wood to heat their houses and food for their hungry, cooped-up families. On Facebook recently, a young mom cried as she isolated with her baby, wondering what another day would bring.

Grandiose pandemic plans by governments tend to look ridiculous in the face of the realities of the North. There, emergencies cannot wait for scheduled departmental briefings; twice-weekly committee meetings to analyze “submissions for assistance” are laughable. Well-meaning politicians and bureaucrats are working to map national plans to these unique local conditions, but they’re trying to manoeuvre in organizations that are as nimble as the Titanic. This system needs to sink.

No First Nations band council chief – nor any right-thinking human – has the time to take on multiple siloed departments in federal and provincial governments when in crisis.

The North often reveals hard truths about the gross inequities across rich Canada. There are no doctors and health teams or clinics able to handle a surging pandemic in communities of overcrowded homes heated by wood stoves or barrels. There are no volunteers able to fix trucks and broken-down generators, drive around wood and plow the roads. Everyone is either sick or in quarantine.

But those who inhabit this land full of frozen bush and sleeping trees have been the first to get out there and help – illustrating, once again, the need for northern sovereignty and self-government, instead of dependence on ill-fitting national protocol.

Muskrat Dam First Nation’s Roy Fiddler organized volunteers in his community to cut lumber and haul it in 12 trucks, two hours down the road to Bearskin, in the freezing cold; they’ve made at least three runs so far. Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation – Big Trout Lake – has been sending convoys of snowmobiles loaded down with supplies to Bearskin for days.

These images of a line of machines, each pulling whatever they could carry, or of volunteers checking in on cooped-up neighbours from outside their doors in the absence of doctors or mental-health teams, are enough to warm the heart, even in bitter temperatures.

Then there is Tania Cameron, a hard-working mother of three in Kenora, Ont., who was in isolation while her youngest son, 18-year-old Josh, had COVID-19. “I saw on social media the case count rising … I could see people on the community page posting the need for groceries,” Ms. Cameron told me.

So she organized a huge order to be flown to Bearskin. She enlisted Sioux Lookout’s Fresh Market Foods, which was only too happy to help. The store partnered with her before to distribute thousands of pounds of potatoes to northern communities. “The first load of supplies should have arrived Wednesday, $12,000 worth of groceries and $6,800 worth of air purifiers on the plane,” she said.

After Ms. Cameron posted on social media that Bearskin Lake First Nation needed a wood splitter, Canadian Tire showed up to assist, donating $5,000 worth of gift cards, she added. So far, over the course of the pandemic, Ms. Cameron has raised nearly $200,000 worth of goods and provisions for those in need.

“Unfortunately, there is the ugly face of racism we face, but for every act I saw, there are 10 or 20 acts of kindness saying ‘this is how we are going to help.’ That motivates me. It makes my heart feel good,” she said.

This is a true pandemic response. It is not one you’ll find in any emergency pandemic guidebook or government plan. It’s just Canadians and First Nations people – regular folks – joining together to offer a hand to where it is needed most.

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