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Indigenous Services minister says housing shortage aggravating COVID-19 outbreak in Kashechewan

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A COVID-19 outbreak in a remote, northern Ontario First Nation would not be as severe if Ottawa had provided more housing before it hit, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said today.

Kashechewan, a Cree community of about 1,800 people near the western shores of James Bay, reported more than 300 members infected with COVID-19 this past month.

Chief Leo Friday repeatedly has blamed overcrowding for the crisis, which is being driven by the spread of the highly transmissible Alpha variant.

“He’s absolutely right,” Miller said.

“There have been investments. There obviously have not been enough.”

It’s not unusual for up to two dozen people to share the same home in Kashechewan and there are 200 people on a housing wait list, Friday said.

If there were more houses, he said, the virus would not spread as quickly and the current emergency could have been avoided.

“We tried and tried to get more housing,” Friday said. “I’d like to ask the minister to come and visit our community and see how it is.”

Minister calls number of young people infected ‘scary’

Indigenous Services Canada has made more than $4.3 million available to Kashechewan this year to address housing needs and is funding a new 20-unit housing project, said Miller’s office.

It also said the department spent more than $49 million to build 52 raised duplexes to replace flood-damaged homes and reduce overcrowding between 2015 and 2017.

But Friday said the urgent need for housing is outpacing the funding being offered.

As of Tuesday, Miller said, Indigenous Services Canada is aware of 87 active cases and 215 recovered cases of COVID-19 in the community. Cases have declined in Kashechewan by more than 65 per cent since June 15, he said.

The vast majority of people who have tested positive in the community are unvaccinated youth. 

“That’s scary,” Miller said.

The Canadian Armed Forces set up isolation domes in Kashechewan First Nation. (Leo Friday/Supplied)

Many of the young people who have been hit with infections have asthma as a result of living in mouldy homes, said Friday.

“I’m worried about, especially, the kids because there’s too many people in the house,” Friday said.

Extra military support was deployed last week to the community. Miller said the personnel on the ground include 17 nurses, four paramedics, 10 mental health providers, 16 team members from the Canadian Red Cross, 14 Canadian Rangers and 13 soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces.

Miller said the military put up temporary isolation units, including six medical domes for quarantine and treating patients. 

Friday said the military is dropping off mail and medication to the community, which is still under lockdown.

The COVID-19 outbreak has hit Friday personally. His 40 year-old nephew is in a Sudbury, Ont., hospital in a coma after becoming infected.

“He might not make it and the doctor doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” Friday said.

The chief is also waiting for a coroner’s report to state whether a man in his 40s died Tuesday as a result of COVID-19.

At least 15 community members have been flown out of Kashechewan for treatment, Friday said. 

Chief wants relocation plans sped up

Evacuations are common in the community, which is threatened each year by flooding from the Albany River’s spring ice breakup.

For decades, Kashechwan has called for relocation. A spot has been selected about 30 kilometres south of its current location.

The community signed a framework agreement with Ottawa and Ontario in 2019 to plan the move. 

Miller’s office said discussions are underway with the province and the neighbouring First Nation of Fort Albany to transfer provincial lands to Canada so they can be designated as reserve lands for Kashechewan.

The department also said it’s working with the community to hire a project manager for the detailed planning phase. 

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday (centre) wants the federal government to provide more housing. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

“The health and safety of Kashechewan and Fort Albany is our top priority, in both the context of seasonal flooding and COVID-19,” a statement from Miller’s office said.

“We remain committed to working with both communities on their respective priorities.”

Miller said he is in talks with Friday about accelerating relocation plans, which slowed down due to the pandemic.

Friday said he wants to see the government move faster.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Friday said. “It’s really hard for people who want to move and have a better place to live in.”

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