COVID-19 and food security at the heart of disagreement on Gull Bay First Nation

A short hold-up involving a shipment of food at a road block near Gull Bay First Nation this past weekend has revealed a disagreement between some band members and the community’s leadership over food security.

Gull Bay First Nation is located about 200 kilometres north of Thunder Bay off Highway 527, and has six confirmed cases of COVID-19.

On Saturday, a shipment of food destined for Gull Bay was stopped at a road block outside of the community.

The food collection had been organized by Mariah Wigwas, a member of Gull Bay who is now living off reserve.

Wigwas said her grandfather is currently in the hospital with COVID-19, and owns the only store in the community.

She said he had been coming to Thunder Bay every day to make sure people had food. So when he ended up in the hospital, she felt compelled to do something and applied for – and received – a grant for $3,000.

“We made 67 hampers with the concentration for the children on reserve,” Wigwas said. “We were able to get three trucks full and two trailers that we were able to pull it together. We were able to get face masks and hand sanitizers for those that were going to do those deliveries on the reserve. We made sure that we had everything in place, even the (personal protective equipment).”

Wigwas said they wanted to make sure to have the proper protection for the drop-off as community leaders in Gull Bay had expressed concern about safety. Wigwas said when they drove to the community, they were stopped at a gate manned by Ontario Provincial Police. She said they were told no band members could go through, although she said they “were all band members.”

Ultimately, Wigwas said an agreement was reached and the food was passed from the trucks and trailers without further incident.

An unidentified man speaks with a police officer on April 25, 2002 outside a road block near Gull Bay First Nation. (source: Facebook )

“We were able just to fill their trucks up and we did it in an organized way,” Wigwas said. “One truck had families. One truck had the single house hampers. One truck had potatoes. One truck had flour. There are people on that reserve who are not allowed to leave their house because they’re in quarantine and no one’s bringing them food.”

Sharon Tyance, a band member living in Gull Bay, has concerns about food security in the community, in light of the closure of the only store.

In particular, Tyance has questions about a cache of food she said has been stored in the community’s recreation centre.

“For the past month here, our chief and council has been storing food in the community rec hall,” she said.”And it hasn’t been distributed to the people here in the community.”

Tyance said now that the community has been impacted by COVID- 19, she believes people should be staying home. But she said out of necessity, there are still people travelling to get food.

“When we had our first case here in Gull Bay, chief and council said they were going to barricade the doors and make sure nobody goes in or out but that didn’t happen,” she said. “We were told on-reserve members can go to Thunder Bay all you want to go get your groceries…a lot of people here don’t want to go to Thunder Bay because they’re so afraid of the virus.”

Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King had quite a different view of what happened on the road to Gull Bay this past weekend, and what is behind the concerns about food security in his community.

Gull Bay First Nation Chief Wilfred King. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

“Well, I thought it was a good deed initially,” King said of the food delivery. “And the organizer has assured me this was going to be done in an organized fashion and that we would take all the safety protocols to get the food delivered it to the community. But as I’ve seen, obviously it was a politically motivated event. We had ex-councillors that were right in the midst of this. And to me they didn’t follow the protocols that we had established and they were trying to you know just run through our checkpoint.”

King said the community is not in full lock down, and that people can travel to Armstrong and Thunder Bay for groceries. He said the community store was never there for all the grocery needs of residents, but for day-to-day items like eggs or bread.

King also said the food stored in the recreation centre was for an emergency.

“In the event that there is no food in Thunder Bay, or if it gets to a point where people are too sick or whatever then we would utilize that food supply that’s in the community,” he said.

King said there had never been a question of concerns about food until the incident around the food transfer this weekend.

“I didn’t get any call from anyone in Gull Bay saying they needed food,” said King. “Not one call. So I don’t know where this issue of food supply shortage (came from). To my knowledge nobody in Gull Bay is starving.There is no shortage of food.This is all political.”

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