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Yellowknives Dene First Nation chiefs Ernest Betsina of N’dilo and Ed Sangris of Dettah are working closely together to ensure their communities have the tools to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Among the Dene communities in the North, they are most unique due to their close proximity to the City of Yellowknife and its high population and dense business community.

Chief Edward Sangris of Dettah says most community members appear to be getting the message about the need for social distancing.
NNSL File Photo

They admit that this both has its benefits and disadvantages during the coronavirus pandemic. Benefits, because there are businesses and corporations – such as Det’on Cho Corporation – who have been able to accumulate food and supplies to members graciously.

Disadvantages because of the closeness of liquor establishments that Dene across the North say are contributing to public gatherings that pose a health and safety concern. The Dene Nation submitted a motion to the GNWT last Friday – backed by all 27 Dene chiefs – seeking help from the GNWT on the issue.

But like many northern communities, Sangris and Betsina say their members have evolved when it comes to attitudes toward the seriousness of the coronavirus in recent weeks. Both added their voices to northern community leaders that physical distancing and sanitary measures need to be maintained as directed by the chief public health officer.

“People weren’t really concerned at the beginning and I think they thought it was business as usual when it came to keeping distance from others or staying at home and not having any contact with anybody else in close proximity,” Sangris said. 

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“I think finally the message is starting to sink in now how important this is.

“I think by them seeing the closing of the stores and restaurants, they realize it is something they have to take seriously. I think our community is noticing the importance of keeping distance and not socializing and keeping away from each other and staying at home as much as they can.”

Food and emergency supplies

Sangris and Betsina both say they are ensuring people are adequately supplied, particularly heading into Easter weekend.

Chief Ernest Betsina speaks to media at City Hall on Thursday morning.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

“As a First Nation, we are hunters and gatherers and fishermen,” Betsina said. ” So we’re practicing our culture by supplying fish to our Elders. Just before the pandemic we were on a community hunt and we were successful, so right now we are handing out meat to our membership.”

The YKDFN has also supplied all member households in Ndilo and Dettah with a $200 grocery store certificate so that families can at least have an enjoyable Easter weekend, Betsina said. 

At the same time, the community is taking financial donations as it can with companies and corporations.

Betsina also noted individuals can make ad difference too. YKDFN member Joanne Tsetta of Edmonton contributed 49 Hampers and $2000 to support the program, which has made a difference in providing food for the communities.

Covid-19 Food Security Program Fund

On April 3, the YKDFN announced the creation of a “Covid-19 Food Security Program Fund” to ensure that the most vulnerable community members – namely Elders, low income members, families living in overcrowded housing, persons with disabilities, and at-risk you and homeless – are protected during the pandemic. This is to to assist the neediest in our communities for the next estimated six to nine months, the chiefs said.

The Det’on Cho Corporation provided $20,000 while other corporate donations have come from other companies such as Diavik, De Beers and Gold Terra Resource Corporation.

“As time goes on, it is getting more critical and so we are asking for donations from companies that can donate,” Betsina said. “Our Det’on Cho Corporation has donated a large sum and so we are asking the corporation and companies to donate and every little bit will help in the long run.” 

Both leaders offered “a really heartfelt thanks” to those who have contributed and said it will mean a lot depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

Elder care 

Sangris and Betsina said protecting Elders and ensuring they understand what is happening remains among priorities.

Sangris said Dettah Elders were slow to understanding on the gravity of the pandemic and what it could mean to the health of the communities, but he is aiming to ensure they get the supports they need.

We started to keep them (informed) of what is happening with this covid and we explained as best as we can what is happening,” Sangris said. “Some Elders don’t really understand or comprehend the magnitude of this thing.”

Betsina said he is concerned about Elders being alone and said it is incumbent upon members to check in on them every day.

“We want to make sure Elders keep in contact with families as much as we can, so it is important for members call and hear (Elders) out and to make sure we don’t leave them alone,” he said.

Where there are concerns about quality of life or Elder care, members are asked to contact the YKDFN who will provide any supports it can, said Betsina.

On the land supports 

Sangris and Betsina said they both welcomed the federal government’s announcement last month to provide NWT Indigenous people with $2.6 million to go out on the land as a means of physical distancing while practicing traditional culture. Still, there are details that should be kept in mind, they said.

For one, it isn’t a lot of money.

“Imagine trying to divide $2.6 million for the on-the-land program for everybody across the territories,” Sangris said. 

“We have a portion of about $133,000, but we have 1,600 members. So you can imagine how we have to stretch that money so that people do go out on the land and be safe.”

For another, Sangris said getting the money is application-based which is “cumbersome” to manage because members have to detail ahead of time how long the trip will be, how much gas will be needed, or what is to be included in the trip’s grocery list. 

Betsina added going out on the land isn’t just a matter of picking up and leaving, either. The YKDFN is making assurances that applying members have a means to travel and are going to be safe for at least a week at a time in self-isolation with their families.

In this spirit, the First Nation is also offering members $250 for gas and $300 for groceries and supplies to go out on the land.

“We have to make sure that our members are safe when they go out on the bush,” Betsina said. “You can’t just go out for a day or a couple of days and then come back. We are asking people to go out and isolate and to be with their families and be safe.”  

The YKFN has noted that the federal government also supplied $144,925.82 as of March 30 as part of Canada’s overall contribution of $6 million to NWT First Nations.

“This falls far short of our nine to 12 month federally requested estimate of $3.6 Million to support our First Nation,” the chiefs stated.

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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