Minister responds to frustration from Bearskin Lake First Nation

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hadju says she shares the frustration of Bearskin Lake First Nations Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin and other leaders who’ve been pleading for help to battle a COVID-19 outbreak in the remote community.

About 400 people live in Bearskin Lake, which is about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Late last month, Kamenawatamin declared a state of emergency when COVID began sweeping through the community. Last week, about half the residents tested positive. At the beginning of the month, the community also asked for help from the military.

“I would say I am frustrated as well,” Hadju told reporters during a virtual news conference on Thursday. “(I want) to better understand, (so) we can meet their needs (and) open up lines of communication. … It’s important to feel that we’ve done everything we can to support (Bearskin Lake).”

Hadju said she spoke to Kamenawatamin on Thursday morning to try to understand where “the frustration is coming from,” and asked him to call her directly “if he’s feeling there are still gaps.”

Kamenawatamin told the minister his community needs more vehicles, which Hadju said she raised with her deputy minister.

There were 47 active COVID cases in Bearskin Lake on Wednesday, Hadju said. Since the First Nation declared a state of emergency, her government has approved more than $1.1 million for supplies, wages, and transport, and has sent in several medical personnel, she added.

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that a Canadian Rangers leadership team was deployed to the First Nation on Thursday to assess its needs. As part of the Canadian Armed Forces reserve, Canadian Rangers provide a limited military presence in northern, isolated, and coastal communities.

On Wednesday, Kamenawatamin said only five rangers had been sent to his community since the weekend.

“We are disappointed with Canada’s response,” he said in a statement. “Our community was anxiously waiting for help, and we were comforted by the thought that Canada would step in to provide us with much-needed physical and moral support. In the end, however, this help has been minimal.”

Seven Canadian Rangers were on the ground in Bearskin Lake, running an operations centre and providing logistical support and other services where needed, said Daniel Minden, speaking for Anand on Thursday.

As more Rangers come out of COVID-required isolation, they’ll be sent in, too, Minden told iPolitics.

The average number of rangers deployed to any community in need is 12. The rangers will stay in Bearskin Lake until Jan. 23, or longer, if necessary.

While he’s “thankful for the help the Canadian Rangers is now providing,” Kamenweatmin doesn’t understand why it took so long to arrive, said a spokesperson for the Windigo First Nations Council, which serves northern communities, including Bearskin Lake.

When asked about the military delay, Hadju said her government had to assess the skills required to ensure the right people were deployed.

Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus said the delay sends the wrong message to Indigenous communities.

“The federal government’s handling of the crisis in Bearskin Lake has been deplorable,” Angus said.

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