The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) is distributing $80,000 to 14 Indigenous communities stricken by COVID-19’s Omicron variant in northern Manitoba and Ontario.
The aid will go toward providing masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and food for communities where supplies are scarce and medical care is hours away by car or plane.
PWRDF began looking for communities in need when Isaiah Beardy, suffragan bishop of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh’s northern Manitoba area mission, called to let the agency know his community, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, declared a state of emergency. The community went into lockdown Jan. 3, announcing 230 cases of COVID-19 out of a population of 3,000 people.
“Earlier in the pandemic there were churches even from the Toronto area, they sent us masks and they really helped initially,” says Beardy. “But now [with] Omicron they’re calling for these special [N-95] masks. They’re hard to get.” In nearby Thompson, Man., he says, people came from miles around to line up outside a local liquor store that was giving out masks in –45 C weather.
“[Beardy] was so helpful in identifying the need,” says Will Postma, executive director of PWRDF. Not long after he spoke with Beardy, he says, PWRDF heard about another declaration of emergency in Bearskin Lake, Ont. So the agency got to work coordinating with Indigenous leaders, nearby Anglican dioceses and local volunteers on a tailored response for each region. Communities in both provinces responded with requests not just for masks and other personal protective equipment but also food and other supplies.
In northern Ontario, answering these needs meant coordinating with St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Thunder Bay. Archdeacon Deborah Kraft, incumbent at St. Paul’s, has been leading the effort to purchase food and masks and transport them to the First Nations of Bearskin Lake and nearby Kingfisher Lake, with St. Paul’s parishioners adding their own donations along the way. So far, volunteers have been running supplies by winter roads, which are only traversable when the temperature is low enough to freeze the ground.
“This is really amazing right now,” says Postma. “You can get materials to communities in a way that isn’t really possible when spring hits—then, it’s mostly by air.”
Even better, he adds, air is now an option, too. In late January, PWRDF made an agreement with Wasaya Airways, a regional air transport company which is offering a rebate to subsidize transporting goods to remote areas.
“What’s really neat about this is how so many people came together in so quick a fashion,” says Postma.
The pandemic has created an urgent need for help in northern Manitoba, Beardy says. Many settlements have at most one or two nurses to care for residents and the elevated number of pre-existing conditions among Indigenous people makes the illness more serious. Limited housing means that when one person gets sick, they can spread it to 20 others under the same roof.
“Covid does not respect anybody” he says. “We have about five people in hospital right now. Fighting for their lives.”
PWRDF provided $15,000 of its $80,000 in aid to Tataskweyak.
Those conditions are common across the region, says Freda Lepine, vice president of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of Manitoba-North (IPAM-N). Also a member of PWRDF’s Indigenous Partner Advisory Committee, she is leading the effort to distribute PWRDF’s $50,000 worth of aid to the neediest households in 12 other communities in the region.
Lepine and her volunteers use the funds for masks, sanitizer, soap and other cleaning products in Winnipeg and other large cities, then transport them up north in their own vehicles. The gas isn’t cheap, but it’s still better than buying the supplies up north.
“Just to get four rolls of toilet paper in the north is probably 12 bucks, compared to $3.99 at the local store in Thompson,” she says. The transport costs added to the markup of buying even basic products in the north are a major part of the reason residents can’t afford to get the supplies themselves. “This is Canada and people don’t realize that our northern communities need help almost like Third World countries do.”
PWRDF is actively looking for more communities it can help without duplicating or interfering with aid from the government and other agencies, Postma says.