As Indigenous communities across Canada ramp up social distancing and isolation measures in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Anglican Indigenous leaders say people are turning to prayer and looking to the past.
“Elders have memories, or can give oral recollections, of when pandemics decimated their populations not too long ago. So they have been good, I think, in terms of advising caution,” says Archbishop Mark MacDonald, national Indigenous Anglican archbishop.
In northern Manitoba, MacDonald says, all church services except for funerals have been cancelled; in northern Ontario and the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, some churches remain open but are “going on a Sunday by Sunday basis.”
As of March 24, there were 2,792 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Canada. The virus has been slow to spread to northern communities, which are generally more isolated, many accessible only by train or plane, some by ice road. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an $82-billion package in response to the virus March 18, with $305 million earmarked “to support immediate needs in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation communities”—though APTN reported at the time that “concrete details” about where the money would go were scarce.
“Where I’m from, people are really alert now,” says Canon Norm Wesley, co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP). Wesley lives in Moose Factory, Ont., in the diocese of Moosonee. “I’d say a week ago, people were seeing this as something that’s quite distant—you know, we’re talking about people who are sick in China and Europe, in Italy, places like that. And bang, you know, just within days—it’s almost like a high tide. We get a lot of tides around here. It’s like a rolling high tide that’s coming, and it’s not quite here yet, but it’s very very close.”
About 3,000 people live in Moose Factory, which is part reserve and part unorganized territory, Wesley says. At the time of Wesley’s interview with the Journal, the closest confirmed cases of COVID-19 were in Timmins, Ont. “That’s a five-hour train ride, and it’s getting close. People are kind of bracing—people are preparing themselves.”
Wesley says that social distancing measures have been put in place by the community chief and council. The ice road that leads to the community has been closed, and the passenger train schedule dramatically cut back. The Northern Store is limiting the number of customers that can enter at a time and opening early for seniors, and all eight churches in the community have stopped holding services.
Such precautions are necessary for communities that cannot necessarily rely on proper medical attention if the virus were to spread there, MacDonald says. “Underlying all of this, there are tremendous fears in the sense that if this were to hit a small community…it would be almost impossible to get medical help…or to get people out of those communities to where those resources might be available.”
While watching the news of COVID-19’s spread, Wesley says he finds himself thinking of the flu epidemics that have swept through his community in the past. “I don’t know what happened here…on our traditional lands, back in 1918, 1920, when the Spanish flu hit…. But you can be rest assured of this, if and when it did come here, it came as a silent killer.” In the past, he says, viruses spread without warning or preparation. “People just got sick and died…. In the early 1940s, we had a flu pandemic here, and my brother died, in 1942.”
Wesley recalls his brother-in-law, who was a child in the early ’40s, remembered bodies being carried out from homes. “There was no defense…no vaccine, nothing. The only thing people could do was care for the sick and bury the dead. That was the only thing they could do. There was no forewarning.
“The difference right now is that we are being warned to take measures. This is coming, and we need to take heed. We need to go to the source of our Creator and say, give us the strength to take heed so that these things will not happen to us.”
The situation highlights what MacDonald calls “the chronic shortage of resources” in Indigenous communities.
“We hope that these measures that people are taking will keep them safe, but the reality is that…these communities are made particularly vulnerable by the lack of necessary support and resources in ways that most Canadians take for granted. This is creating a great vulnerability, and we pray that God will protect them. But it’s really uncovering in a really acute and tangible way what we need to do to make things good and just in the future.”
One other tactic some are taking to combat the virus is going out on the land.
March is the beginning of the new year in the Cree calendar, says Wesley, the time when the days get longer and the snow begins to melt. “The month of April is niskipîsim, meaning ‘Canada goose month’…. People are getting ready for the arrival of migratory birds, the Canada goose. This is huge for us. It’s definitely the sign of plenty. We go out and hunt geese which return from the south, and there’s just a mass migration of people back to the land to go and harvest the Canada geese and waterfowl, ducks and geese, in April.”
“It’s going to be challenging for us…. [We need] to ask God to give us more strength, more endurance, just to sustain us and be able to do what we need to do, to self-isolate ourselves. And if we self-isolate ourselves and have the strength to do that, we are going to be okay.”
Some communities, he says, are encouraging people to go out onto the land early. “That’s a refuge for us…. We’re totally self-isolated.” Wesley and his wife will be going out to their camps for at least the month of April. “That’s our fallback, that’s our place of retreat.”
“There’s been a lot of talk of people, I’ll just say, panicking, over the fact that this COVID-19 will really decimate First Nations communities and reserves and stuff. And it will. If the right precautions are not taken, it will devastate communities, it will be more than overwhelming…. People are right in saying that. But the flipside of that is this: that we can go out onto the land and self-isolate this, and it will not touch us…. That’s the upside in this whole thing. That’s what I look at and say, that the more of us that go out onto the land who are able—who are able—will be really blessed with being out on the land, knowing the beauty and the sacredness and the protection of the land is all around us.”
Meanwhile, MacDonald says the Indigenous church is continuing to engage with its members by other means, whether through Facebook or by practicing gospel-based discipleship—gospel study that can be done daily with family in one’s own home. “Indigenous people like the prayer book…but one of the issues with it, everything in the prayer book happens in the church building. Whereas the inherent Indigenous inclination is to celebrate with the extended family. I think that we have been trying to work with that focus in terms of how we look at discipleship. We’ve been working on that for a while, and we hope that that might take off.”
Wesley says that he sees a lot of people in his community turning to prayer, “to seek guidance, to seek understanding, to have a sense of grasping on to some sense of hope and to relieve themselves of anxiety.”
“The only thing that’s going to get us through this is prayer. Prayer to have the strength to do what we need to do, and that’s this whole business of social distancing. To be able to take heed of advice that we’re given by the healthcare people. It’s going to be challenging for us…. [We need] to ask God to give us more strength, more endurance, just to sustain us and be able to do what we need to do, to self-isolate ourselves. And if we self-isolate ourselves and have the strength to do that, we are going to be okay.”
The “most painful issue,” right now, MacDonald says, are funerals. “There’s some communities that say funerals are so important that even though they present some risk, we have to go ahead with them. There are other communities that say, well, we can do a small funeral now, a memorial later.”
As COVID-19 continues to spread, MacDonald says the church will have to “develop a number of strategies to try to provide pastoral care,” and that the situation is prompting Indigenous ministries to redesign “from the bottom up.”
“I do think this situation is clearing the board of a number of things that we had scheduled, all of which were important. But it’s also focusing us on some of the underlying needs that our folks have. So we are going to be spending the next few weeks looking seriously at what our strategy is going forward, and I think some of this will have implications for the future as well,” says MacDonald. “We won’t just be looking at what we have to do to get through this—we will be looking at what the implications are for long term.”