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Crees adopt provincial indoor mask requirement as cases increase nearby

BY Ben Powless Aug 14, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the world, the Cree Nation leadership has decided to follow Quebec’s directives on mask use in public indoor spaces, now requiring those over the age of 12 to wear masks. 

That update came during Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay chairperson Bella Petawabano’s July 30 public statement on the Cree Radio Network, when she reminded people that this includes retail and grocery stores, shopping malls, entrances and elevators in public buildings, airports, as well as buildings where sports, cultural or religious activities are held. 

“Wearing a mask protects other people in case you have the virus without having symptoms. We have to get used to wearing a mask, and it’s everyone’s duty to learn how to wear it properly. This is another reality in the pandemic,” Petawabano said, encouraging people to buy homemade masks from local artisans. 

The announcement comes as cases begin to rise in some Quebec jurisdictions, including Region 8 (Abitibi-Témiscamingue) and Region 2 (Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean). Region 8 has seen at least six cases confirmed in the past few weeks, including a suspected case of community transmission in Val-d’Or.

Meanwhile, Region 2 has struggled, with over 50 cases reported in the past few weeks. This moves Region 2 into an area considered unsafe and requiring two weeks of isolation for anyone returning from there. 

The CBHSSJB is monitoring the situation in Region 8 but still considers it safe to travel. However, Petawabano urged caution if visiting Val-d’Or, Senneterre or Rouyn-Noranda – as bars, restaurants and theatres there have reopened and may represent transmission points, particularly as people may remove masks. 

This means that anywhere outside of Region 18 (Eeyou Istchee), Region 17 (Nunavik), Region 10 (Nord-du-Québec) and Region 8 are considered unsafe, including any mine sites, forestry camps or Hydro-Québec sites. Anyone who returns from these areas is required to isolate for two weeks. 

Petawabano acknowledged that this was a burden on families who have members working in these camps, and said the leadership may issue updates in the future on this issue. 

However, protocols have been developed for work sites to become certified in Covid-19 testing, meaning Cree workers returning from these sites will not have to self-isolate. As of press time, no work sites yet met that requirement, but the Cree Nation pledged to inform the public if that changes. 

CBHSSJB also reports that an individual recently failed to respect the Local Isolation Law and visited several social gatherings. This forced the Public Health Dept staff to trace and contact all those at risk while forcing all those who came into contact with the individual to take precautionary isolation. The Board of Health reiterated the importance of considering how everyone’s actions impact other community members as well as local health workers. 

As of July 30, 706 Covid-19 tests were done on community members, with 694 coming back negative, and two still waiting for a result. There are no known active cases in Eeyou Istchee. Another 856 tests have been conducted, with 846 being negative, and 10 awaiting results. 

Petawabano said the tests are primarily meant to ensure that health workers, and others potentially at higher risk, weren’t carrying the virus. 

“Screening tests are like casting your net in the right places in the river. We are looking for undetected infections. We appreciate your cooperation for this kind of testing,” she said. 

As teachers begin to return to communities August 8, they’ll also be required to isolate for two weeks. 

With the Cree Nation Annual General Assembly taking place, no Covid-19 briefing was issued August 4, according to Corinne Smith, Information Officer for the Public Health Department. Instead, health experts made presentations directly to the Cree leadership, while the proceedings were broadcast on the radio. 

In the rest of Quebec, there has been increasing concern over the province’s announcement to allow restaurants and bars to reopen, while allowing outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people, up from 50 previously. 

The Montreal Gazette reports that a number of medical experts voiced their concerns in an online thread, but didn’t publish their names out of concerns for privacy. 

In one email, a medical specialist wrote: “Having seen the worst of this pandemic, I would prefer we stay the course a little longer. I would like to see the bars close and these gatherings not be allowed at least until mid- to late September.”

Quebec defends its position by saying it is following European models. However, Spain has recently faced a surge in cases tied to large gatherings involving young people. 

New cases have hovered above 100 per day in Quebec in recent weeks, while Canada as a whole has seen a minor decline in newly reported cases. Overall, Canada has seen over 118,000 confirmed cases, and just under 9,000 deaths. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.