COVID-19 crisis distracting from flood-prone First Nation's plight: NDP

OTTAWA — New Democrats say the COVID-19 pandemic is distracting the federal and provincial governments from helping a northern-Ontario First Nation whose residents have been forced to evacuate each spring due to flooding.

The spring evacuation has become an annual event for the roughly 2,000 residents of Kashechewan, who have seen their community north of Fort Albany flooded by nearby James Bay and the Albany River for years thanks to melting winter ice and snow.

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But federal NDP MP Charlie Angus and his Ontario counterpart Guy Bourgouin, whose respective ridings include Kashechewan, say they have yet to see a plan for helping the community this year as the federal and provincial governments appear preoccupied with COVID-19.

"Normally at this time of the year, there's a whole team," Angus said in an interview Monday of past efforts to prepare for an evacuation. "It seems everybody is preoccupied with COVID. And the community doesn't seem to have a lot of support right now."

It doesn't help that temporarily relocating residents to southern communities, as in previous years, is not an option, Angus added. Not only are those communities already facing their own challenges with the pandemic, but people in Kashechewan are wary of being exposed to the illness.

To draw attention to the situation, Angus and Bourgouin sent a letter Friday to federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford in which they asked what the two governments were planning to do for Kashechewan.

The ministers' offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

The federal government established Kashechewan on the northern shore of the Albany River in the 1950s, one of two First Nations that trace their origins to a former Hudson's Bay Company trading post nearby.

Residents have long claimed that they warned the federal government against the site because of the threat of flooding, but their advice was ignored.

An agreement to move the community to a new site about 30 kilometres south of the current site was signed with the federal and provincial governments last year, but Angus said minimal progress has been made.

The federal Indigenous-services minister at the time, Seamus O'Regan, suggested it could take eight years to complete the move.

Angus said when it became clear a few weeks ago that COVID-19 was rendering past plans to evacuate residents to Timmins, Sudbury and other southern towns infeasible, residents suggested the government erect a tent city on Site 5.

"So the first option the community took was to try and prompt the government with military help to set up this temporary village at the site of their future community," he said. "And the government said that was too complicated."

Residents are now being encouraged to live off the land, Angus said.

But while some have resources and experience through traditional hunting camps and similar arrangements, and geese are returning to the area, Angus is worried about hundreds of people being forced to "wait it out" with limited support.

None of which accounts for what happens if COVID-19 gets in amongst the community.

Faced with the dual threat of COVID-19 and floods, the Mushkegowuk Council of Chiefs, whose members include Kashechewan, declared a state of emergency on March 18. The move aimed to ensure federal and provincial action to support the council's seven First Nations.

"They've been forced to do the annual evacuations that cost in the millions every year to undertake," Angus said. "But this year, where are people going to go and how are they going to be safe? I'm just very concerned. ... If the worst-case scenario hits, people could be very affected."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

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