Indigenous leaders and residents of La Loche and area say the community remains resilient as it grapples with being the epicentre of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan.
The vast majority of the province’s active cases are in and around the small, remote community, located about 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
“We survived the smallpox a while ago. We will still continue,” said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron.
His message was echoed by La Loche Mayor Robert St. Pierre who had one message for fellow community members:
“We will get through this. Stay at home and practice social distancing.”
The community was already vulnerable before the outbreak, with tragedy in its recent past along with high rates of suicide and addiction. Four years ago, La Loche was the scene of a deadly shooting that took four lives and injured several others.
A Saskatchewan psychiatrist who works with clients in La Loche told CBC earlier this week that there were already not enough mental health supports in place prior to the pandemic. Now with stress and anxiety during an outbreak, people in La Loche have even less access.
Despite this, community members are hopeful.
‘I feel like a bird in a cage’
David Ruelling is among those practising physical distancing. He lives in the neighbouring Clearwater River Dene Nation and hasn’t been able to see his two elderly parents, who live in La Loche, for weeks.
“I am scared for my father. My father is elderly and he has very poor lungs. I’m really afraid for him. If he catches COVID-19, I’m sure he won’t survive it. He’s just too weak,” said Ruelling from his home.
Ruelling said not being able to see his family takes its toll.
“I feel like a bird in a cage. I would love to go see my brother. In a strange way, the community is closed off from everyone else. We’re fine within ourselves. We’re the epicentre of this pandemic. It feels that way,” he added.
Feeling “caged” is a sentiment being expressed by other northern Saskatchewan residents as well. Travel restrictions, part of a revised public health order issued by Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, were announced by Premier Scott Moe on April 30.
The updated order outlawed all non-critical travel into and out of the Northern Saskatchewan Administrative District, which covers nearly half of the province but has a low population relative to the rest of Saskatchewan.
Below map showing the region affected by the restrictions. Don’t see it? Click here. Zoom
The order also required northern residents to remain in their local communities, except for grocery runs and medical appointments, and to practise physical distancing.
Travel restrictions remain through May Long weekend
Premier Moe says the travel restrictions may come under discussion again with northern leaders “in the days ahead” but stressed that talks about potentially relaxing them in some northern areas won’t happen before the May long weekend.
“I think it is fair to say that if these numbers hold, we will have a discussion with northern leaders as well as with others on, ‘Can we really focus our restrictions to where they need to be?'” Moe said Wednesday afternoon.
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Moe said such conversations would also focus on what the restrictions initially set out to do, “which is to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus and not impact those communities that aren’t currently being impacted with infections.”
Power of language and culture
Chief Cameron and David Rueling both said Indigenous practices and knowledge systems will help First Nations facing the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some people are reconnecting with nature, prayer. We are taking guidance from our knowledge keepers and elders,” Cameron said.
“We are still positive people. We will continue to keep our language and culture alive,” said Ruelling, who teaches Dene language at the Clearwater River School. He has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to transmitting the language to elementary school students.
“La Loche will survive this virus.”