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Members of the Royal Canadian Air Force's 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron unload a CH147F Chinook helicopter as part of COVID-19 relief efforts, upon arrival in Pauingassi First Nation, Manitoba on Feb. 6, 2021.

RCAF/Reuters

The military has been called in to help manage an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Pauingassi First Nation in Northern Manitoba, a community lacking the critical infrastructure to deal with a major health crisis.

While Pauingassi grapples with the emergency on the ground, it also faces a fundamental service gap in the air – the community doesn’t have an airport, leaving a local resident with the virus waiting for 17 hours before she could be airlifted out to receive medical treatment in Winnipeg, NDP MP Niki Ashton said.

Ms. Ashton, whose riding includes the First Nation community, said Wednesday that the pandemic has been made worse for the people in Pauingassi because of the lack of an airport. The Liberal government must learn from the crisis and invest in much-needed infrastructure in remote communities, she added.

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“People know that the lack of that kind of infrastructure makes them more sick,” Ms. Ashton told The Globe. “The lack of an airport has rendered the community more vulnerable time and time again. They have to use a canoe … when the ice [road] is gone, to get people to the nearest community with an airport.”

In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has underscored the many pre-existing inequities in First Nations communities across the country, including the lack of infrastructure, proximity to medical treatment and prolonged problems such as overcrowded housing.

From the beginning of the pandemic, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, warned that even a single case of COVID-19 could severely affect First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities – who face a higher risk of severe outcomes owing to the lack of resources and higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions in the population.

As of Tuesday, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said it was aware of 18,356 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases on reserve. The department said there are 1,761 active cases, 833 hospitalizations, 16,401 recovered cases and 194 deaths.

Tom Wong, ISC’s Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, also said Tuesday that the new variants of COVID-19 detected in Canada also increases the potential risk of spread into Indigenous communities. He stressed the importance of doubling down on all current public-health efforts, including staying at home, physical distancing and regular handwashing.

“Those are the measures that can shut down and shut out the virus, whether they are the new variants or not,” Dr. Wong said.

Pauingassi has done everything possible to stay safe, Ms. Ashton said, noting the First Nation responded quickly to isolated cases last fall and in December. She said the community is now trying its best to manage the outbreak that began at the end of January. Chief Roddy Owens said in a statement that Pauingassi is doing the best it can with available resources and those that have come into the community.

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In a statement, Department of National Defence spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said that Canadian Armed Forces personnel were sent to the community on Tuesday to support an ISC-led liaison and reconnaissance team to assess the situation in Pauingassi.

Mr. Le Bouthillier said that a separate team of 16 personnel arrived in the community on Saturday via helicopter to provide pandemic relief support. They will stay in Pauingassi until the situation has stabilized and is manageable through local and provincial resources, he said.

At a news conference in Ottawa, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged that 17 hours was too long for anyone to wait for a flight out of their community to seek medical care.

“People can die,” he said. Time is of the essence.”

Mr. Miller said in the longer term, ensuring proper infrastructure supports for communities located in remote locations such as Pauingassi will be critical.

“We need to see the government learn from COVID,” Ms. Ashton said in response. “What worked, what didn’t, what is needed now – and that has to include an airport for Pauingassi.”

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