Chief Leo Friday has been trying for 15 years to relocate his community of Kashechewan First Nation away from the Albany River. Each spring, as the snowbanks melt and the river thaws, flood waters threaten homes and infrastructure. In past years, the community’s 2,000 residents have evacuated to Cochrane, Kapuskasing, Thunder Bay, and Timmins — all several hundred kilometres away.

But, this year, the remote First Nation, located near the western shores of James Bay, is facing two natural disasters: flooding and COVID-19. “I’m concerned about their safety. I want to make sure that they are okay and to see everything will work out smoothly,” says Friday. “We want to keep our members away from the city and away from the stores and away from everything.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has tracked and modelled the flooding situation on the river, where the ice is projected to break up by May 1. The community does not want to evacuate to the south, as the Porcupine region has become the epicentre of the virus in northern Ontario, with 57 cases and three deaths. And the northern municipalities that normally take in the evacuees say they will be unable to house an influx of thousands of people, as their resources have been stretched thin.

“The prospect of COVID impacting Kashechewan compounds what is already a logistically challenging evaluation and assessment in any year,” says Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. “If you move [residents of Kashechewan] to a community that has had cases of COVID or is more susceptible to having COVID, whether it’s symptomatic or asymptomatic, you then have another logistical issue with community members that are there to make sure that they don’t then take it back.”

Friday sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on March 13, requesting that the community remain in a central location: Site 5, as it’s commonly known, which is about 30 kilometres north and has been identified as the community’s permanent relocation spot. “But they didn’t get back to us until the end of March, which is very late,” Friday says.

According to Friday, clearing the site and building a tent city where food, medical supplies, and evacuation crews could be accessed in a central location “was the billion-dollar idea.”

Though Miller says that the ministry hasn’t ruled out military intervention and that plans are “evolving,” both Friday and the community’s local representatives at provincial and federal levels say their sense is that Site 5 will not be used for a tent city.

Mushkegowuk New Democrat MPP Guy Bourgouin says, “What I’ve heard is that’s out of the picture, out of the question.” Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong and the Indigenous affairs critic at Queen’s Park, says that he supported Friday’s initial proposition: “I think again, it goes back to the community. The community knows best on how they want to be served. We need to listen to the communities.”

The federal and provincial governments have pre-emptively evacuated more than 1,000 people onto the land, according to Friday; another 800 are waiting to be dispersed across the subarctic muskeg with tents, camping equipment, and food. Some of those who’ve been evacuated are in their own camps and have more established infrastructure to maintain themselves during the spring goose hunt. The community aims to hunt, fish, and trap for survival. But conditions are not ideal. People can get sick; people can get injured. Radio and satellite communications will be needed; medevac personnel must be prepared to transport people from the wilderness back to nursing stations, where medical staff need to be stocked with the proper supplies.

“We’re working on having medevac contingencies in place, including having paramedic supports that will be very much present. Remote locations require satellite-type phones to communicate,” says Miller. “It isn’t just about walkie-talkies, but being able to have fire extinguishers, being able to have bolstered nursing and health-care support.”

According to Miller, $2 million has been invested so far in the evacuation. “This isn’t a question of finances or resources,” he says. “We will do whatever it takes to keep the community safe.”

But not everyone can sustain themselves on the land for extended periods of time. The young, the elderly, individuals with health problems or addictions will not be camping on the land. There are between 300 and 400 people in this predicament, according to Friday. The First Nation wants to avoid sending them south, where they could potentially become exposed to the virus, but, Friday says, if they cannot stay in the community during the flood, they may have to be evacuated to a hotel or college campus. However, the Northern Ontario Municipal Association, which represents the interests of northwestern municipalities, and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, which oversees cities and towns in the northeast, say that their communities cannot handle an influx of new people.

“That’s something we’re working on right now,” says Miller of the remaining evacuees. “There’s a number of options, and we’re working on some right now with [Ontario’s minister of Indigenous affairs, Greg] Rickford. We’re pretty confident we’ll have options.”

Considering the size and scope of the evacuation, Friday says that he has been pleased with the co-operation and help the community has received from the federal and provincial governments. He does, though, remain frustrated about the situation. For 15 years, governments have promised to move Kashechewan. The now-yearly evacuations, which have gone on for the better part of 17 years, have taken a toll on the people who live there, he says: if they had been moved earlier, “We could have been up in a better living condition by now.” The agreement they had made with the federal government in 2005 was scrapped after the Harper government came into power. “They shelved the old agreement and didn’t get it going,” says Friday. In 2019, Friday signed a new agreement with Ottawa.

Miller says he recognizes the challenges of their situation: “In the middle of a pandemic, it is difficult for me to think about the what-ifs, but, clearly, that is something that has gone on for a long time. The federal government is committed to putting the resources in place to moving the community if it so chooses to Site 5.”

But those are words that Friday says he’s heard before — as does Bourgouin: “Don’t forget that Site 5 has still not even cleared yet. They’re starting to build a road. There hasn’t been anything done because of the political ping-pong that has been played between provincial and the federal government. And who pays it out? The community pays for that.”

Miller knows it will be necessary to rebuild trust. “We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through it together. But that involves, communication and work and, frankly, a level of trust that the Canadian government still needs to work hard to achieve,” he says. “Because we know that we’ve broken the trust of a lot of Indigenous groups and peoples generally throughout the years.”

Asked whether he was worried for his people and what might happen as they evacuate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday recalls advice his father once gave him. “My father told me to go check out the snares when I was young,” he says. “I told him I’m afraid, and he told me, ‘The only thing that you should be afraid of is your axe.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about the other things. The Creator will take care of that. Just be cautious about what you do with your axe.’ And I think that’s what all the people were taught when they were young: to be very careful what they’re doing.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It’s brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

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