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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

In the spirit of survival

BY Xavier Kataquapit May 8, 2020

So far, I am very thankful that we are not hearing about many COVID-19 cases or deaths in remote First Nations communities. There are reasons that our northern First Nations have been lightly impacted by this virus. The most important has to do with a good response by our local and regional organizations like the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN) leadership and their health professionals. I have also been made aware of the great efforts of regional organizations such as the Wabun Tribal Council in northeastern Ontario and its communities’ initiatives to restrict access to their First Nations and provide health services and support to their residents. 

Local Native health organizations – like the Mino-M’shki-ki Health Team in Kirkland Lake and Temiskaming Shores, Misiway Milopemahtesewin Community Health Centre based in Timmins and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA) on the James Bay coast – have been assisting their respective communities with support, information and services. Mushkegowuk Council in the James Bay area and its member First Nations have been effective in restricting traffic to their communities and at keeping people informed. 

How important is it for First Nations to be represented by our own health organizations? It makes a huge difference to be able to access funding, services and information due to the lobbying and representation of our own people. We understand what we need in times of crisis and we are very aware of how our communities operate and what our various cultural and lifestyle realities are. I have friends and family members who are health professionals and they know better what is best in dealing with this pandemic in their respective communities. 

Our Indigenous leadership is very important in making sure we are getting the necessary funds, attention, supplies, services and information in a time of such crisis. I give thanks to all the Tribal Council directors, the Chiefs, Grand Chiefs and all the staff working in our political and health organizations because without them we would be left out of the loop. I also say Meegwetch to all those Chiefs who came before us and fought long and hard to put into place the regional and national organizations across this country to give our people a voice.

So far Indigenous peoples are holding their own in fighting this virus. Remote First Nations like my home community of Attawapiskat are fortunate for their isolation. Many of these communities can only be accessed by air and seasonal winter roads. Limiting travel in this time of pandemic crisis is protecting a very vulnerable society. Many people in Attawapiskat and up the James Bay Coast are heading out to their traditional camps on the land and that is serving them well in avoiding contact and in keeping their families isolated.

I am still worried that the world’s virus experts are warning us that we probably won’t find a vaccine or develop herd immunity to this virus for maybe a couple of years. In the meantime, we are all very vulnerable to this new virus and we must make sure that our governments are carefully and gradually reopen our economy and institutions. It looks like we will be slowly returning to normal over the summer, while most schools will wait until September to welcome students back. The only proven way we can protect people right now is by staying home, physical distancing, wearing a mask when we are out in the public and washing hands often. 

Many of us don’t realize that most of our industrial plants and mines across the country are still operating and, in many cases, it is difficult to ensure everyone is safe from infection. Meegwetch to all these workers for doing their jobs and supplying the goods we need. Slowly we will all work together to ensure that our world returns to some type of normal, but we must realize it will take many months and most probably a few years. Our world has changed, and we are going to have to keep adapting and respecting each other and following some basic health and safety rules to survive this pandemic. 

All our ancestors, both Native and non-Native, managed to rise above many diseases, wars and tragic events. We will work together to keep that spirit of survival alive. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.