To date, Eeyou Istchee has achieved the lowest rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases among the regions of Quebec, placing the Cree Nation in an enviable position to gradually loosen some precautionary measures and slowly transition towards a new normal.
With restrictions taking their toll on mental, social and economic wellbeing, Cree communities are moving forward with a five-phase deconfinement plan. Considering the unique health vulnerabilities and immense geographical area of Eeyou Istchee, the plan is much different than what is happening in the rest of Quebec.
A key part of deconfinement is a new law requiring mandatory 14-day self-isolation for anyone coming from areas or jobs deemed “at-risk”. The latter includes mining sites, forestry camps and Hydro-Québec facilities. The law enables communities to publish a list of those required to self-isolate and the date when the requirement expires to help with compliance and clarity.
“Top priority for us is preventing Covid from coming into Cree communities,” said CNG executive director Bill Namagoose. “Once it comes in, we don’t have the capacity or resources to resolve the issue. The cases we’ve had have all been imported. There’s been no spread within Cree communities. We’d like to keep that momentum.”
While the Mandatory Self-Isolation Law will inconvenience certain workers and people wanting to travel outside the region, CNG secretary Paul John Murdoch emphasized self-isolation isn’t intended to be a “prison sentence”. It requires maintaining a two-metre distance from others, avoiding public places, not inviting others to your home, wearing a mask when outside or with others, and maintaining basic hygiene measures.
“This law supersedes laws of the provincial or federal government,” said Murdoch. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If the premier of Quebec decides to visit one of our communities, I hope he has 15 days or else it’s not going to be much of a visit because he would be subject to this law.”
While the “at-risk” areas could change over time, it currently includes anywhere south of Lebel-sur-Quévillon and east of Mistissini. People may travel between Cree or Inuit communities and towns such as Matagami and Chibougamau in Region 10 without self-isolating. After long discussions in Chisasibi, it was decided Radisson is considered low-risk as Hydro-Québec ensured its workers will avoid the community’s public areas.
Under specific conditions, Cree governments or the health board may grant exemptions to the law for patients who have completed self-isolation in other areas, professionals in case of emergency or, theoretically, patients who pass more advanced future testing. Communities also maintain the power to enact their own stricter isolation measures.
Considering Eeyou Istchee’s connections to Montreal, the pandemic’s Canadian epicentre, Cree leadership felt an urgency to control community access. If the situation remains stable in the weeks following Goose Break, Phase 1 of deconfinement will begin when Sûreté du Québec checkpoints into the region come down, which is expected to happen by June 9.
Outdoor activities, two-household gatherings and some non-essential healthcare services can resume at that time. Public health will monitor the situation for at least two weeks before proceeding to the next phase, looking at both the number of cases and the system’s capability to manage them.
“By June 9, there should be an announcement on which clinics will be able to do what,” said Dr. Faisca Richer, CBHSSJB public health director. “Managers of the clinics are evaluating the priorities in their population and whether they have the workforce. Dentistry is probably something that will be reopening sooner rather than later.”
Covid-19 testing will be expanded to people returning to job sites and asymptomatic community members returning to their communities in the coming weeks to ensure the situation remains safe. Testing is also being offered to all frontline workers – for instance, ambulance drivers, clinic staff and police officers. Although it has been challenging to find sufficient lab technicians so far, they hope to test at least 10 people a day in each community.
“Reopening doesn’t mean we stop physical distancing,” Richer told the Nation. “For periods when it’s not possible to be two metres from one another, they’re going to have to wear masks and gloves. We’re working with our occupational health team to train people before we start.”
In Phase 2, local businesses can reopen, small indoor private gatherings become possible and all other health services can gradually resume. Phase 3 allows medium-scale private and public gatherings as well as the reopening of personal services, restaurants, daycares and schools.
Phase 4 will allow larger public gatherings and the reopening of all other businesses, including recreational and entertainment activities. Community checkpoints will be removed at the very end, along with any other remaining measures, in Phase 5.
Richer said the health board will try to work with specialists from outside the territory willing to self-isolate. While the new law will postpone many larger projects, local construction is set to resume in Phase 1.
“We’re going to be starting construction activities that use local labour only,” Namagoose told the Nation. “I’m talking about the Cree Nation Government projects. Larger projects need surveyors, engineers and architectural technicians who we don’t have in the Cree world.”
In the recent deconfinement livestream, CBHSSJB chairperson Bella Moses Petawabano had some guidance for walking out ceremonies. She advised hosting a smaller ceremony with close family, limiting the number inside the teepee to only immediate family. If serving food, choose a server with a mask to prepare the plates rather than having a buffet.
Although Eeyou Istchee is doing very well with only one active case, the pandemic is far from over in Quebec. Richer said it’s a time to be hopeful but not to let our guards down.
“I would like to remind people that the worst of the situation is behind us,” said Richer. “Even between communities, it is quite safe to travel now because we really have no cases in the region. Let’s start by going into the fresh air, keeping some distance and wearing masks and we’ll see how it goes.”