How the COVID-19 outbreak in Bearskin Lake shows Canada needs to boost crisis response in First Nations

When a major COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed a small, remote First Nation in northern Ontario, the federal government’s response was criticized as being slow and ineffective. 

As leaders in Bearskin Lake cried for help, Ottawa sent $1.1 million and said it had deployed seven Canadian Rangers. Local leaders, however, say only three came from outside the community. 

It’s an effort critics say was too little, too late.

This isn’t the first time governments in Canada have come under fire for failing to help First Nations facing emergencies. 

Bearskin Lake First Nation is in northwestern Ontario, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city, Thunder Bay. (CBC News)

But this latest instance has again exposed how unprepared the country is to deal with the more frequent and intense emergencies that climate change can bring, especially in First Nations, which the Assembly of First Nations says are 18 times more likely to be evacuated due to emergencies than other communities.

It’s a complex conversation — encompassing public safety, health and Indigenous affairs — and is complicated by jurisdictional disputes and unique realities in each of the more than 630 First Nations in Canada.

There are well-established steps — repeated in multiple government reports and cited by several experts who spoke with CBC News — that can be taken to ease the pathway to a future promising unprecedented disasters. But there is agreement in that it can only happen if everyone is at the table, on equal footing.

‘We’re going to be on our own’

When John Cutfeet, a resident of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, heard nearby Bearskin Lake’s call for help, he had no questions, no second thoughts. Just action.

“When there’s a call for help, there is a response as immediate as possible,” said Cutfeet, also board chair for the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, which services 33 First Nations across northern Ontario.

“It’s what true nations do. It’s what we’ve always done.”

Two dozen people from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, a remote First Nation in northern Ontario, braved frigid temperatures and uneven terrain to deliver food, medicine and essential supplies via Ski-Doo to neighbouring Bearskin Lake at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted by John Cutfeet)

Cutfeet drew a clear distinction between that kind of immediate and visible on-the-ground action, from other First Nations in the region, and the unfulfilled expectations of the federal government.

LISTEN | John Cutfeet shares how his community helped Bearskin Lake:

24:47A perilous skidoo journey to help neighbouring community stricken with COVID

A similar situation unfolded last summer in nearby Kashechewan First Nation, where Chief Leo Friday struggled to get military assistance as 15 per cent of the 1,900 community members were infected with COVID-19.

Eventually, a large contingent of nurses, Canadian Rangers and, later, other military personnel were deployed. But the response came so slowly that the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven remote First Nations on the James Bay coast, called for a public inquiry.

Riley Yesno is a research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute who is Anishinaabe from Eabametoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Yesno said these slow responses are “on par with the government’s track record.”

Remote communities expect to be forgotten or ignored by governments, Yesno said. If the surrounding First Nations don’t step up to help out, she added, there is an expectation that no one will.

Riley Yesno, a fellow with the Yellowhead Institute who is Anishinaabe from Eabametoong First Nation, says First Nations people in northwestern Ontario do not expect to receive timely help from Ottawa during a crisis. (Submitted by Riley Yesno)

“There is a long, known history of generosity, of showing up for one another among Indigenous people.”

Indigenous Services Canada Minister Patty Hajdu acknowledged that expectation of being forgotten, saying it’s “an unfortunate legacy of colonialism.”

In an interview with CBC News, she said, “The work that our government is pursuing through the efforts on reconciliation is to try to rebuild relationships, and in some cases, build them for the first time.”

What should the response be?

First Nations outside northern Ontario, in other parts of Canada, also say they feel abandoned.

During the seasonal ice breakup in May 2021, floodwaters displaced 700 people in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., a community at the confluence of the Liard and the Mackenzie rivers in the Northwest Territories and home to the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation.

Ice mounts the riverbank in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., in the spring of 2021, forcing hundreds from their homes. (Submitted by Jonathan Antoine)

Mayor Sean Whelly said the village didn’t think they needed military assistance at first. As waters continued to rise, Whelly said, they called for help, but it never came.

“The response we got back two or three weeks later was that the military couldn’t come because of COVID, and No. 2, because we didn’t have rooms to put them in,” the mayor told CBC News.

“I was thinking, ‘How does the military go to Bosnia or anywhere else if they’re waiting for hotel rooms and it has to be totally safe before they go?’ It just did not make sense to me.”

Ultimately, the federal government deployed just two Canadian Rangers, both of whom lived in the same village and had to take care of their own flooded homes.

The question of why so few Canadian Rangers were deployed is a complicated one, but with continued criticisms of slow and inadequate military assistance, are they the best resource to respond to emergencies in First Nations, or anywhere else in Canada?

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly says his community asked for help, but didn’t receive what they needed during their flood crisis. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Canadian Rangers are often a great local response, as a “self-sufficient” reservist branch of the Canadian Armed Forces, says Peter Kikkert, an assistant professor of public policy at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S

They are usually from the community they are deployed to support, so Rangers have established relationships, trust, and an acute knowledge of the land and culture that means they are well positioned to help in a wide array of disasters and emergencies, Kikkert said. 

But “the Rangers are not a panacea,” he added.

“Eventually, local response teams are overwhelmed, or are required to deal with their own personal and property concerns. We saw this happen at Bearskin Lake.”

In these instances, Kikkert argues, outside support must be rapidly deployed to help communities on the brink of collapse.

The military is supposed to be the force of last resort, when all other options have been exhausted. – Josh Bowen, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology 

But Josh Bowen and other military experts don’t believe that should necessarily be the Canadian Armed Forces.

“The military is supposed to be the force of last resort, when all other options have been exhausted,” said Bowen, a faculty member in the disaster and emergency management program at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Bowen also served 13 years with the Canadian military, including in several domestic disaster response operations.

Instead, the Canadian Armed Forces has become the only option, said Bowen, now deploying more frequently to domestic natural disasters than ever before.

He suggests that Canada look into the development of alternative options, whether that be the centralization of other disaster response resources — like the Red Cross and Team Rubicon — or the creation of a trained, civilian force that could be quickly deployed to disaster zones, similar to what other countries have done.

Peter Kikkert is the Irving Shipbuilding Chair in Arctic Policy and a professor of public policy and governance at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. His recent research has focused on the role of the Armed Forces in the North and leadership of Canadian Rangers. (Submitted by Peter Kikkert)

In the case of Bearskin Lake, Kikkert observed, volunteers living in Thunder Bay and nearby First Nations basically played that role.

“What if this could be channelled into a more robust formal response?” Kikkert asked.

Minister of National Defence Anita Anand was unavailable for an interview.

But as Canadian Armed Forces personnel are deployed more frequently to domestic natural disasters, it’s a question several military experts say the government must consider.

‘Jurisdictional complexity’ causes slow response

Regardless of the force that actually responds to emergencies in First Nations, a key issue remains how fast the government acts.

It took a full week after a public request from Bearskin Lake’s leadership before any Armed Forces members were deployed.

That delay is a classic example of the “jurisdictional complexity” that shrouds emergency management in First Nations, said Stephanie Montesanti, a health policy researcher and associate professor with the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Health-care workers administer the COVID-19 vaccination to members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in British Columbia in this file photo. COVID-19 outbreaks in First Nations have put a spotlight on the help the federal government can provide. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Provinces and territories hold jurisdiction over emergency management, Montesanti said, but Ottawa has direct responsibility for Indigenous communities, especially with health and social care.

“A lot of that jurisdictional complexity does contribute to the delays in government responses,” she said.

A 2018 report from the standing committee on Indigenous and northern affairs clarified Ottawa’s role in emergency response is to provide reimbursement and advice, where appropriate.

As climate change-related disasters continue to disproportionately affect First Nations, federal funding through the Emergency Management Assistance Program has steadily grown through the past decade.

But the standing committee report also noted there are “significant gaps in the approach to emergency management,” and called the roles and responsibilities “ill defined.”

The report calls for the creation of tripartite agreements between First Nations, provinces and territories, and the federal government that clearly outline those responsibilities and “promote equal partnerships.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said she’s made it a priority to sign more agreements that ensure “full Indigenous participation.”

Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu says the federal government must build trust with Indigenous communities and fill in gaps in emergency assistance. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“In every space that impacts and affects Indigenous people, we often see that concern raised by Indigenous people that there’s a bit of a ball bounce,” she told CBC News.

“While those disagreements happen, the needs of Indigenous people go unmet.”

Where there is some clarity, said Montesanti, First Nations do have a responsibility to develop their own response plans, which may be outdated or forgotten. 

There are a number of reasons for that, Montesanti said, including lack of guidance from the federal government and limited resources, especially in small remote First Nations that are often dealing with other crises at the same time. 

Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement it is spending nearly $259 million over five years (which began in 2019) to strengthen the capacity of First Nations to handle emergencies. 

First Nations are reliant on that funding, and other programs made available by the federal government, because they don’t typically have a tax base to build revenue.

Lessons must be learned

Unforeseen emergencies are a fact of life. Despite the diligent work of emergency planners, experts agree there will be situations that could not have been foreseen.

When that happens, emergency preparedness experts say, it’s important that lessons are learned and documented, so the same mistakes don’t happen again.

Hajdu said the government is doing that work and looking to fill the gaps so everyone is more prepared when disaster inevitably strikes Indigenous communities.

Future emergencies will show whether the work happening now will be enough.

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