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Shamattawa wages war on COVID-19 as cases rise, military deployed

In the frigid cold, the people of Shamattawa First Nation are waging a battle against COVID-19.

On the front lines, 18-year-old Karl Canabie has been hired to guard a school where those who have tested positive have been corralled. Canabie’s job is to ensure they stay inside, permitting each to go outside for five minutes at a time to get some air.

“I’ve been working here for like a week and four days and watching these guys so they don’t have to run away, and doing favours for them,” Canabie said during his shift on Sunday, which started at 4 a.m.

As of Sunday, Canabie and the community have help, after more Canadian Armed Forces members arrived in a Hercules military aircraft with dozens more soldiers and medics from Edmonton. They were unloading personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies.

Their arrival comes after Shamattawa Chief Eric Redhead issued a plea for help in late November. With a population of about 1,300 people, it is the hardest-hit Manitoba community of the pandemic, with recent test positivity rates hovering between 70 and 80 per cent.

The first group of soldiers arrived on Dec. 6. The second wave arrived Sunday night, bringing the total number to just under 60.

The troops will do wellness checks, deliver food hampers and conduct contact tracing. They will also help to relieve people like Canabie and watch over the makeshift isolation centre. In a bid to halt the spread of the illness, those who have tested positive and can’t isolate at home properly have been asked to go to the school.

A family on the Shamattawa First Nation poses for a photo through their window. Crowded homes like this one are thought to be the cause of a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in this remote community. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

‘We’re so confined’

Shamattawa Chief Eric Redhead said roughly one-third of the on-reserve population of about 1,300 have tested positive, but because of difficulties in getting people tested, he believes the true number is much higher. 

He said contact tracing conducted on people who have tested positive so far has set off alarm bells. 

“Literally, the entire community is a contact, right, because we’re so confined. We have one school, one grocery store.”

Rhonda Miles doesn’t have to look far to find someone she loves who’s gotten sick after getting COVID-19. The Shamattawa First Nation resident says her elderly mother tested positive after developing a cold, a sore chest and having a hard time breathing. She’s still fighting the virus.

“We are worried about getting COVID. I’m worried that my kids will get sick,” Miles said.

Shannahan Redhead is helping to make sure families in isolation have access to food. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Canabie said he lives with seven people in one home and most of his cousins have the virus. Overcrowding is one reason some of the residents are isolating at the school, which is currently not being used for school as students learn at home.

The military has turned the school into an emergency isolation and command centre. People who test positive are being placed in the gym.

People who don’t have the virus but need to self-isolate and can’t do so at home — usually because of overcrowding — are being placed in empty classrooms. Soldiers are sleeping in nearby rooms. 

For the troops, the deployment is unusual. Last year, for example, they were in Latvia for an operations mission in support of NATO. Now, they’ve been sent to help their fellow Canadians at home.

“The thing that is really unique about this is that we are in Canada helping Canadians. These are our people and we’re at home helping each other,” said Lt.-Col. Michael Reekie, the commanding officer of the second Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. 

Before the military arrived, there was a strong community effort on the ground from the Indigenous-led Bear Clan Patrol, the Red Cross, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and volunteers like Shannahan Redhead.

Photo gallery: Fighting the spread of COVID-19 on Shamattawa First Nation:

Redhead, 22, is delivering hampers to people in isolation and helping those that don’t have access to vehicles.

“They’re really happy because they can’t leave their house and they’re really scared of leaving them because they don’t wanna catch COVID,” he said. 

‘A lot of vulnerable people’

During evenings, Redhead is on night patrol making sure people follow a mandatory curfew that’s in place from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., which restricts movement. If residents break it, they’re fined $200.

Redhead said it’s been a struggle to get residents to co-operate. “No one wants to stay home, right, and they want to go out and see their families,” he said.

Chief Redhead, meanwhile, said that while some elders have been airlifted out of the community and placed in the ICU in Winnipeg, no one has died. He said the timing of the COVID spike isn’t great, as the community was already dealing with a tuberculosis uptick this past summer. 

“We have a lot of vulnerable people living in the community — our elders and people with underlying health conditions and a tuberculosis outbreak. And you add COVID-19 to that. It can be very devastating and so we need to contain this as quickly as possible.”

He said he doesn’t know how COVID got into his remote community but he has a suspicion it came from a returning member who was in Winnipeg for medical care and then passed it on to others.

Dion and Rhonda Miles are making the best of the time in quarantine. On Sunday, they made a snowman with their kids for an online competition encouraging people to stay home. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Back at Rhonda Miles’s house, the mother of two kept her kids at home inside on Sunday, taking part in an online snowman-making competition.

Her husband, Dion, is hoping that when his wife and kids get tested, the results will be negative. 

“I pray that everybody gets well, gets better and people listen to the [public health] protocols.”

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