Saskatchewan Indigenous community ‘frustrated and angry’ as it battles outbreak

There are 136 cases in La Loche and 21 among members of the nearby Clearwater River Dene Nation

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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

UPDATE: Shooting suspect arrested by Wetaskiwin/Camrose RCMP

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Quality Inn & Suites in Rimbey. Photo Submitted
Rimbey hotel gets new lease on life

The Quality Inn & Suites in Rimbey is now open and taking bookings

Leanne Evans, Rimbey Neighbourhood Place Program Coordinator, accepts a donation of $5,000 from Kevin Maxwell manager of Field Support for Telus. (Photo Submitted)
Rimbey Neighbourhood Place making big changes behind the scenes

Rimbey Neighbourhood Place recently recieved a $5,000 donation from Telus

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. nbsp;Alberta is reporting it's highest daily number of COVID-19 cases, with 364 new infections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta confirmed 323 COVID-19 cases Tuesday

Central zone active cases at 145

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.	Kenney is isolating at home after one of his ministers tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta premier isolating after minister tests positive for COVID-19

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is isolating at home

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.	Kenney is isolating at home after one of his ministers tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta premier tests negative for COVID-19 but will isolate for a week

Kenney said he will isolate until Oct. 29 and, in the meantime, work from home

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Alberta's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday, July 6, 2020. Advisers are reportedly recommending Alberta's kindergarten to Grade 4 arts and social studies curriculum remove all references to residential schools because it's "too sad" for young children. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Advisers suggest Alberta students not learn about residential schools before Grade 4

Documents suggest children younger than Grade 4 are too emotionally vulnerable to learn about residential schools

File photo
RCMP’s response to online discussions about anti-racism demonstrations

Ponoka RCMP Staff Sgt.’s comments misattributed online

Shaelynn Decock and her dog Taco, who has been missing since Aug. 26. Photo Submitted
Sylvan Lake woman looking for closure for her stolen dog

Shaelynn Decock says it has been two months since she last saw her dog Taco

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a news conference Tuesday October 20, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau and his family decide against trick-or-treating this year due to COVID

Adhering to local health authorities, Trudeau urges Canadians to do their part in following those guidelines

Most Read