TIMMINS -- First Nations communities across northern Ontario are developing pandemic plans in response to the growing potential risk of COVID-19 to their more vulnerable community members.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations communities in the north, has scheduled regular teleconferences with its chiefs to discuss how to limit exposure to the virus and ensure consistent access to healthcare.

One of the organization’s deputy grand chiefs, Walter Naveau, said where municipalities may have consistent access to medical professionals, some indigenous communities don’t.

"It’s a big concern of mine because of isolated communities," said Naveau.

"How do we ensure each community is looked after in that capacity?"

Walter Naveau talked with Nishnawbe Aski Nation
Walter Naveau talked with Nishnawbe Aski Nation leaders Friday afternoon about COVID-19. March 13/2020 (Sergio Arangio)

Staff, executives banned from outside travel

That’s what he discussed Friday afternoon in a teleconference with NAN’s grand chief and member chiefs throughout the region.

Part of the attempt to minimize the spread of the virus into its communities involved implementing a travel ban on its executive council and frontline staff including inter-community travel.

The ban does not apply to its community members but NAN does encourage them not to travel to areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19 unless it’s necessary.

Items like hand wipes, hand sanitizers and face masks are essentials that the organization is working to keep a constant supply of to its communities.

'Our hospitals are not prepared for this'

The situation looks to be challenging even for less isolated communities, according to chief of M’Chigeeng First Nation, Linda Debassige.

She says despite having hospitals on Manitoulin Island, they tend to run at capacity without adding COVID-19 to the mix.

"Our hospitals are not prepared for this," Debassige said.

"The concerns we have, with respect to that is the ability to continue to provide regular care, to provide our membership with peace."

Chief Linda Debassige
Chief Linda Debassige has been working with local health officials since January to devise a pandemic plan for COVID-19.March 13/2020 

M’Chigeeng is not part of NAN but Debassige considers its grand chief, Alvin Fiddler, a good colleague and has asked his advice on how to approach the situation.

Her community has also instituted a travel ban on its staff and healthcare workers, as well as asking its membership not to travel expect for emergencies.

With one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Sudbury, close in proximity to Manitoulin Island, Debassige said her community needs to be extra vigilant.

‘If this virus hits ... it will be catastrophic’

Debassige says her community started preparing for an eventual pandemic in January, but that it doesn’t ease the necessity for changing her people’s way of life to combat the virus.

"We are a communal people, we do things together," Debassige said.

"And those are things we are now having to limit, diminish and eliminate."

She said aspects like overcrowding in households, prevalent health issues in the community and an aging population, make it especially crucial to have safeguards in place.

Seniors COVID-19
Seniors and those with health complications are must susceptible to COVID-19. March 13 /2020 (Sergio Arangio)

"We rely heavily on our elders for wisdom and guidance," Debassige said.

"If this virus hits them, it will be catastrophic. We will lose our language, we will lose history, we will lose our traditional knowledge. Our community will be devastated."

Working with health officials

Planning for quarantine sites is being discussed, she said, but the community would also need to rely on self-quarantine due to the lack of local healthcare providers.

The federal and provincial government have guidelines for indigenous communities for dealing with pandemics.

Grand chief Alvin Fiddler told CTV that NAN will need to rely on them to make sure indigenous peoples that don’t have consistent access to protective equipment and supplies get it, in case COVID-19 spreads further.

"We are scrambling to work with health authorities to make sure our communities are prepared as much as possible,"  said Fiddler.