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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Checkpoint Charlie

BY Will Nicholls Feb 1, 2022

Quebec was an optimistic place shortly before the holidays – before Covid-19 infection rates exploded after the Omicron variant made a triumphant appearance during its blockbuster world tour. As I hopped a plane to Chibougamau in late December, the warning signs were more like huge billboards of flashing neon advertising that our recently recovered freedoms were about to disappear once again. 

Gathering limits shrank, bars were shuttered before Christmas and restaurants were told to lock their doors – forcing them to throw out all the food they had purchased to satisfy the high number of reservations for New Year’s Eve meals. Sundays were made sacred (for Christians) once again by enforcing closures of non-essential businesses. Finally, we briefly returned to childhood with the 10pm-to-5am curfew (which was lifted January 17 after universal opposition).

Predictably, this resulted in large crowds rubbing elbows trying to obtain food supplies. For who would know how long groceries would be available as shelves were emptied of many basic items. 

In Waskaganish, there was a total lockdown with no one allowed to enter or even leave the community. At one point there was a run on the bread supply at local stores. Some residents were worried about toilet paper and other necessities. Many employers were alarmed as more and more workers were unable to return to work.

Throughout Quebec, we’ve seen long line-ups at grocery stores. In Chibougamau, I saw more than 25 grocery carts waiting for a cashier to serve them in the early afternoon. Returning to Montreal in mid-January, I noticed it was no different at the Provigo in the Park Extension neighbourhood.

Going in and out of Mistissini reminded me of the Berlin Wall dividing democratic West Germany from communist East Germany during the Cold War. The Mistissini check stop is nicknamed Checkpoint Charlie, after the heavily guarded Berlin border crossing in that era. You are asked where you are going, where you live, your name and the names of your passengers. You face similar questions coming back and are expected to detail every place you visited. Only with the guards’ approval can you enter the community. It’s a surprise we’re not asked for a passport.

In Eeyou Istchee, there are lists of who needs to be isolated and for how long. After my cousin Facebooked “I am free”, I congratulated him on surviving house arrest.

We are all tired of Big Brother telling us what to do. It’s not easy to stay in the bubble but I complied, not visiting friends or family outside my parents’ home. This is very difficult after almost two years. We are all social animals. 

Returning to Montreal, it was more of the same, though without Checkpoint Charlie. I was able to see my boys but staring at four walls during the curfew felt like being placed in solitary confinement in prison. I can only imagine the mental illness that many people must be suffering. 

This should never become normal. We should not get used to a government that doesn’t allow us to see friends, monitors our movements and social media, or determines where, how and when we can work. That puts us on the wrong side of Checkpoint Charlie.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.