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Reflections on the lockdown from Waskaganish

BY Neil Diamond Apr 20, 2020

Up until the late 1990s, when the access road opened, Waskaganish lived in near isolation. Before that, what we teasingly described for outsiders as the “Squirrel Trail” was the only safe way to drive out or in. But it lasted from just before Christmas to early spring, when the thaw came. Back then, the only reliable way in or out was by airplane or on a boat to Moosonee. 

Now, with the COVID-19 lockdown, the way out to the south and other neighbouring communities has been restricted. No more quick runs to Amos, Val-d’Or and points south for food, booze or drugs. But the word on the street is that people do sneak away to Matagami and Chibougamau to replenish their supplies of choice. Word on that same street now says this is about to change drastically. The powers that be have collected names and patrols are waiting.

To be honest, not too much has changed for many people. There are still people who have rarely left the territory. Much like those denizens of the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn who are rumoured to never have crossed the Hudson to the island of Manhattan. The one thing that’s changed is the four restaurants in town have been closed for sit-down service. But take-out service is still available. These places were very popular, with one of them having lined-up customers waiting to be seated for all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch.

The streets have grown quiet, with families spreading out to their hunting camps while the people left in town seem to be in good spirits. There are no reports yet of raging cabin fever. I asked people what they found to be good and bad about how life has changed. This is what they said…

People now go hunting in Cree territory. 

I can’t be with my grandchildren. 

I’m improving on my soft-boiled eggs.

I’m being forced to sober up the hard way.

I get to watch movies and the bonus features.

I eat too much.

I have time to reflect on the future.

I can’t work.

I have time to sleep and take care of myself, and more Netflix. I communicate more with my family.

I’m running out of toilet paper.

Having to work, I’m taking a risk. 

There’s a slowdown of mail delivery, 

There’s more gossip and misinformation.

I’m running out of shampoo.

It’s hard for people who don’t have internet access.

Emergency services are in place and the elderly are prioritized.

People take better care of themselves. Cleaning their houses and cupboards and not taking things for granted. You appreciate people more.

You can’t just up and go anywhere. I can’t have wine. I nap too much and worry more about family who are in the city. Prices have gone up in stores. Having to self-isolate after leaving town.

It seems people are keeping their humour and their sanity, at least for the time being. It’s hard to imagine what others are going through. There are reports of 12 people who have tested positive in Nunavik. So many more in the Navajo Nation.

At the time of this writing there are six confirmed Cree sufferers of the deadly COVID-19 virus. There are three in Chisasibi, two in Nemaska and one in Montreal. 

The other communities, along with those stricken, are in almost near total lockdown. The access roads in and out are manned by public security officials asking where you’ve been and where you’re headed. 

There were rumours in Waskaganish that there was an 11:30 pm to 6:00 am curfew in effect. Untrue. Along the same lines, some people are wondering aloud if the Chinese are deliberately spreading the virus or if 5G technology is responsible.

What is true is that gatherings of more than five are verboten. People are lining up two metres apart for groceries, gasoline subsidies and the no-longer-daily mail. Essential workers at the band office have been told not to visit each other in their offices. People are warned not to get too close to strangers or friends. There are signs posted everywhere telling everybody to wash their hands. 

In effect, we’ve been reduced to an almost child-like state. But do obey your parents and Big Brother – go wash your hands again.

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Neil Diamond is a filmmaker, writer, founder and owner of the Nation. He currently resides in his home community of Waskaganish.