Concerns for remote communities driving First Nations travel, conference cancellations

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is one of many Indigenous organizations making the call to limit travel and announcing specific actions in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde announced on Thursday that the AFN has cancelled all scheduled meetings and conferences in response to the virus and has also suspended staff travel. 

Many are worried about the virus spreading into remote communities that lack adequate infrastructure and health services. 

The federal government announced on Thursday it is taking steps to address the specific needs of remote Indigenous communities. 

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba, many of which are remote. 

In a news release on Thursday, MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the region remains low, but acknowledged that “it is increasing.” 

Settee urged people to take recommended health precautions to keep each other safe such as increased hand washing and social distancing. 

Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, is calling for people to take recommended health precautions such as increased hand washing in response to COVID-19 pandemic. (John Einarson/CBC)

He also said that, “Travel is a concern at this time so be diligent in making travel plans, you may wish to reconsider travelling at a later date.”

Leslie Varley, executive director of the B.C. Association of Friendship Centres, said concerns about inadvertently sending the virus into remote First Nations led to the cancellation of an annual youth gathering in B.C. 

The association announced on Thursday it had cancelled Gathering our Voices. Roughly 1,200 Indigenous youth were expected to attend the event March 16-19 in Kamloops. Varley said many of them would have been travelling to the event from small First Nations communities in the province. 

“We were worried if they were going to go home, maybe with the virus on them, they could pass it on to an elder who might not have access to the medical services that we have in Vancouver,” she said. 

“We wanted to make sure our communities are safe; that we’re not going to be spreading this virus.”

‘Indigenous Peoples take pandemics very seriously’

Shirley Turcotte, a registered clinical counsellor, said concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic making its way into remote First Nations should be taken seriously, especially in places where there isn’t adequate infrastructure such as clean tap water. 

“It is dangerous to have a virus take hold in a remote community that doesn’t have the services it needs,” she said.

Turcotte, who specializes in an Indigenous approach to healing complex traumas, said all of the news and updates about the virus can bring up a lot of emotions. 

Those emotions, she said, are rooted in the distinct history Indigenous Peoples have with outbreaks of diseases like smallpox and the Spanish flu or more recently, with viruses like H1N1.  

“Indigenous Peoples take pandemics very seriously,” she said. 

When it comes to feeling like “something awful is coming or something awful is happening,” Turcotte said it can be helpful to know that “all of that anxiety comes with important intergenerational knowledge and current knowledge.” 

She also said anxiety can be a positive thing, something that can help people make good decisions for their communities and their families. 

When it comes to the anxieties rooted in intergenerational traumas, Turcotte said “just think of that as our ancestors trying to tell us to prepare.”

“That’s our ancestors speaking up and it’s not a negative anxiety at all. Even the intergenerational flashback knowledge — just think of that as our ancestors trying to tell us to prepare. Our ancestors saying, ‘do these things, drink that Labrador tea every single day right now.’ So that’s our ancestors speaking up.”

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