More can be done to help northern communities weather pandemic, say local leaders

Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) Chief Tammy Cook-Searson says northern residents should be very mindful of travelling south because of high COVID-19 cases.

Cook-Searson was responding to an advisory by health authorities saying northern residents should avoid non-essential travel outside their home communities.

She said the number of cases of COVID-19 in northern communities is rising and they don’t have the same resources as larger centres to deal with the crisis.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), the Athabasca Health Authority and the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority issued the joint recommendation, saying many cases in the north have been linked to travelling south and out-of-province.

The advisory is not a restriction, but a recommendation from regional medical health officers.

“In the north, we don’t have the same resources as the south — city centres, for example. And we have a lot of overcrowded houses, so there’s a lot more challenges in the north,” Cook-Searson said.

The LLRIB is one of the country’s most populous bands. It is providing members on reserve who have tested positive with isolation kits that consist of cleaning supplies and essential groceries.

Chief Cook-Searson said that while the average time in isolation is 14 days, in some cases people have had to isolate for more than 30 days, depending on the household and symptoms. 

Lac La Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson says the band is distributing isolation kits with cleaning supplies and essential groceries to members affected by COVID-19. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

While they are getting help to those people living on reserve, Cook-Searson wants to see more support for those members living off-reserve.

“Whether it’s La Ronge, P.A. or Saskatoon or Regina, they don’t have that same support that we provide to our band membership,” she said.

For example, if someone tests positive in one of the LLRIB’s six communities, they are given cleaning kits to disinfect and sanitize their house and provided with staples such as milk, bread, eggs, fruit and vegetables. 

She said it is more challenging if the person lives, for example, in the town of La Ronge or Saskatoon, where there might be one band member living in a house with non-band members.

“It’s more challenging because they really don’t have anybody else to provide them that support.”

The LLRIB is working with other organizations like the Prince Albert Grand Council to get support for people falling through the cracks.

Cook-Season said there are people from other bands, and non-First Nations or Métis people, that need the same type of support and may not be getting it. 

MLA for Athabasca Buckley Belanger says the provincial government needs to do more to help northern communities. (Matthew Howard/CBC)

NDP MLA for Athabasca Buckley Belanger said there are some distinct areas of concern in the north.

“Number one is we don’t have the health care services that are enjoyed by the larger centres. Secondly, we also have overcrowded homes,” Belanger said. 

“We have a housing shortage in northern sections. And so that’s an excellent breeding ground for the transmission of COVID-19.”

Another issue is the isolation factor. Supplies need to be brought in to some communities and the cost of living is high.

“These factors really create a lot of challenges for northern Saskatchewan communities.”

Belanger said the provincial government hasn’t done enough, especially in this second wave of the virus.

“We know that the provincial government had that information. They had the modelling and they had the resources,” he said. “They could have prepared Saskatchewan people a lot better”

Belanger said clawing back social services benefits from people who can least afford it is also having a detrimental effect, as is a lack of support for some northern workers.

“The only people that are helping the northern communities besides the mayors and the chiefs are the health professionals. They are out there and they’re doing their darnedest with the limited resources that they have.”

On Sunday, the province reported that the far north west and the far north east zones have 185 and 188 active cases respectively, accounting for about nine per cent of all cases in the province.

This past spring, the provincial government imposed travel restrictions on northern Saskatchewan before eventually lifting them.

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