According to Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon, not a day has gone by during the COVID-19 pandemic that his community has not had to deal with “some kind of crisis.”
One of the more recent threats to the health of the community has been visitors from nearby COVID-19 hotspots like Montreal or Laval hoping to purchase discount cigarettes and cannabis – even though the outlets are now closed.
“They say they want to shop here because they here there’s low levels of COVID-19,” Simon told the Nation. “They’re coming here in droves, possibly bringing this deadly virus into our community.”
In response, the community erected road checkpoints to deter people from entering the territory. So far, they’ve had mixed results.
“Even though we were able to stop them in their cars, some are still sneaking into our community by foot. Or worse, they lie and say they’re delivering food for Elders. Then we see them at one of the cigarette stores,” Simon observed.
“Others are driving right through the checkpoints, endangering the lives of our workers. We’ve turned away about 4,000 cars over the past week.”
The people working the checkpoints wear protective gear and have been instructed to be non-confrontational. They ask drivers prepared questions and, in some cases, request they provide identification to prove they’re from the territory.
“We put out a call to our community asking if they’d like to make a small salary while helping to protect our community during this time of social distancing,” said Simon. “Those manning the checkpoints are from all parts of our community. They feel the same, they have love ones here they want to protect.”
To date, no one in Kanesatake has tested positive for the virus. However, over 180 Elders reside there and Simon estimates that over half of the community population is immuno-compromised.
“We have people with heart disease, diabetes, there are people with cancer,” exclaimed Simon. “If this virus gets into our community, we’ll be looking at mass funerals.”
He also says visitors have behaved poorly once they realize that tobacco and cannabis dispensaries on the reserve have been closed due to the pandemic.
“Some of these people were going around knocking on people’s doors,” said Simon.
If outsiders choose to enter the territory even though they’ve been asked to leave, their license plate number is given to the Sûreté du Québec, which may issue a fine.
Initially, the checkpoints to restrict access to Kanesatake and the neighbouring community of Oka were welcomed by Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon. However, Quevillon soon withdrew his support, insisting on provincial approval and that the checkpoints be handled by the SQ.
The SQ then requested that the Mohawk checkpoint to the village of Oka be removed. However, Simon is adamant that it will stay up until the SQ can prove it will protect the area.
“People from Oka, non-Natives, have gone up to our workers at the checkpoint and thanked them,” explained Simon. “I tried to tell [Mayor Quevillon] this isn’t political. It’s about the health of our communities.”
Simon is apprehensive about the looming beach season – Oka beach being a popular summer destination – especially since provincial travel restrictions are being lifted by the Legault government.
“We’re not going to remain COVID-free for long if this kind of thing persists,” Simon lamented.