Describing the small and sparsely spaced communities of the Northwest Territories as representing the end of the road doesn’t even come close.
Many are hundreds of kilometres from the end of even the remotest winter road. Those not connected to the highway system are served by barge or aircraft, and the challenge their residents face in terms of the cost of living and the services available to them are well-documented.
Until Wednesday afternoon, the only Covid-19 case was in Yellowknife. Our second infection is an Inuvik resident and though Inuvik is another regional hub, the news that the virus had reached one of our most Northern communities was sobering.
So, too, was the revelation that two more cases were confirmed Thursday night, and that one of them was under investigation after the patient returned to their home community of Fort Resolution upon re-entering the NWT and not holding up in one of the four designated isolation centres, such as Hay River, 160 km away.
And then, Friday morning, that this person was in fact in Yellowknife now – hospitalized at Stanton.
A steady thrum of concerns is coming in from community leaders: hamlet and village mayors, and Indigenous chiefs, who are forcefully making the case that adding a viral outbreak to the mix of their historic challenges would be catastrophic.
Chief Darryl Marlowe of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation worries the isolated community of 300 would be unable to prevent “everyone” getting sick if Covid-19 were introduced. Jean Marie River, population 74, has had a lockdown in place since an emergency meeting March 16.
Members of the designated authority about 360 kilometres northwest of Hay River are securing the road turnoff from the Mackenzie Highway and there is a large plywood sign warning visitors to stay out.
That community received about $28,000 of the $2.6 million promised by the federal government to help Indigenous people get out on the land. Chief Stanley Sanguez and other leaders have reported an inspiring uptick in people doing so, making note in particular of young people showing enthusiasm for it, or at least being exposed to it.
Jessica Jumbo, Sambaa K’e youth counsellor and environmental coordinator, said some young people in that community of 90 are getting some experience with a chainsaw, and using their traditional language to boot.
She described that as a silver lining, but that lining’s cloud is that the small, smaller and smallest communities in the Northwest Territories are at a heightened risk of widespread sickness and possibly death should the pandemic darken their doorsteps. This screams for action with alacrity from the GNWT and Canada.
To its credit, the federal government directed oilsands giant Suncor, which donated 40,000 of the gold-standard N95 medical masks from their stock last week, to distribute them to the three territories because this is where the need is greatest.
The situation changes a number of times throughout the day, and again while the sun is down. It’s hard to keep up, it’s a crisis so unprecedented it’s being increasingly compared to enduring the Second World War.
Last week, an emergency room doctor in New York who worked 9/11 said what’s happening now is worse. Character is being revealed, political leaders are living their defining moments and the final grade for how governments navigated these most trying of times will be tied directly to what they did to protect their most vulnerable citizens.
Northern communities are resilient. The people know the land and how to subsist from its bounty and are perhaps as individuals the most prepared among us for a global lockdown and supply chain crash. But they’ll need help to deal with a virus we don’t have a vaccine for yet.
Without a robust, fully funded and fleshed out response to these issues North of 60, “reconciliation” will be reduced to nothing but rhetoric.