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Saskatchewan Indigenous community 'frustrated and angry' as it battles outbreak


LA LOCHE, Sask. — Amanda Black feels lucky that her symptoms have remained mild since she tested positive last week for COVID-19.

She and her six-year-old son, Malachi, have runny noses and can't taste their food.

"We seem to be OK so far," Black said in an online video from her home in La Loche in northern Saskatchewan.

The Dene village of 2,800 people, about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, is the centre of a large outbreak of COVID-19. Each day the number of confirmed cases in the area goes up.

As of Friday, there were 136 cases in La Loche and 21 among members of the nearby Clearwater River Dene Nation. The majority of cases are still considered active. So far, two elders who lived in La Loche's continuing care centre, have died.

The village sits in the boreal forest on the shores of Lac La Loche near the Alberta boundary. It's an important stop for groceries, gas and visits with friends for many nearby First Nations.

Each winter, a road is built connecting the village to Alberta's oilsands, where many La Loche residents work. It's that connection that is likely to have brought the deadly coronavirus to the isolated community.

Health officials have said some COVID-19 cases in La Loche are linked to travel from the Kearl oilsands work camp north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

"Outsiders are trying to pin the outbreak in the north on La Loche," Black said in a message to The Canadian Press. "It just so happens this virus showed up at our doorstep."

The quickly spreading outbreak is what many health professionals had feared would happen if COVID-19 made its way into an Indigenous community. Chief public health officer Theresa Tam has called the situation concerning and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Indigenous, isolated and remote communities are particularly vulnerable.

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, has said most cases in the far north are in youth and younger adults. He reminded them that they are not invincible and could expose others who could get seriously sick or die.

Diane Janvier Dugan lives in Saskatoon, but she was born and raised in La Loche. Her 90-year-old mother and much of her family still live here. Dugan said she often yearns for the fishing, hiking and traditional ceremonies she grew up with.

"La Loche is full of culture," she said. "Dene culture is just everywhere."

Dugan dropped off supplies for her mother at the start of March and began to cry on the long drive back south. She knows what's at stake if the virus continues to infect the elder population.

"When my mom goes, the culture, everything she knows, all of her knowledge about being Dene in La Loche, is gone." 

Dugan has sewn masks with a goal of getting two masks to each person in La Loche. She has also recorded information videos about masks, disinfectant and the spread of the virus in the Dene language.

"I'm worried. I'm not sleeping well and I'm so disturbed by this. I want to do more," she said.

Leonard Montgrand, regional representative for Metis Nation-Saskatchewan, has been on the front lines in La Loche.

There were initially problems with people gathering too closely outside stores, he said. He got angry at anyone not following guidelines, but now understands it can be hard for people to comprehend an invisible foe.

Recently, the community's two grocery stores transitioned to curb-side pickup. But one store closed this week for cleaning after a worker tested positive.

Montgrand said, by and large, most people are taking the risk seriously and staying home. But it's not easy.

"A lot of people are frustrated and angry: angry at people that are passing the virus, angry that they have to stay in isolation for 14 days, angry that they can't come out, or angry that they can't socialize."

Everybody knows each other in La Loche, and word has spread about who has tested positive. That's influenced some young people to stop socializing, Montgrand said.

But there's worry they may have already brought the virus into crowded households.

Some residents with addictions will need extra help if La Loche is going to get COVID-19 under control, he added. The community is increasing its capacity to house the homeless and is developing a special alcohol program.

It's also hoping to set up a retreat north of La Loche to keep elders away from those who are infected.

Montgrand is frustrated but also determined. He's seen the community overcome a lot, including a mass shooting at the high school in 2016.

The shooting did not define La Loche, he said, and neither will this outbreak.

"Our community has been through a lot, made a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons ... I just hope to hell we can get control of the numbers."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2020

— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

The Canadian Press