Six Nations leaders say closing reserve led to no active cases of COVID-19

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After three of its residents tested positive for COVID-19 in late March, the Six Nations of the Grand River took the unprecedented step of limiting access to its territory.

That meant creating an identification system for all vehicles in the community southeast of Brantford, Ont., and shutting down most of the roads entering the reserve.

More than six weeks later, elected Chief Mark Hill says taking those extreme steps has been critical to stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus into one of Canada’s most heavily populated First Nations.

“I don’t want to speak too early on things but when we declared our community emergency, we did the right thing,” Hill said in a recent interview, noting that the first major step was limiting access to the Iroquois Lodge nursing home in the village of Ohsweken. “What started out as protecting our elders evolved into the bigger picture.”

The Six Nations of the Grand River declared its community emergency on March 13 and began restricting access to Iroquois Lodge the next day. Like municipalities across Ontario, the reserve shut schools, parks and other recreational facilities, and encouraged residents to work from home.

But on March 30 a third resident of Six Nations tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the emergency control group — a committee equally comprised of elected officials and traditional tribal elders — to restrict access to the reserve.

That meant setting up checkpoints at eight of the 22 concession roads entering the territory and closing the rest.

Residents were given vehicle ID badges with QR codes so police manning the checkpoints could easily scan them without having physical contact with the passengers. For trucks bringing in food and other supplies, a work order or invoice has to be provided.

All these steps were necessary to keep out the tens of thousands of visitors Hill says the territory gets for shopping and recreation.

“They’re coming from highly populated areas like the Greater Toronto Area so there was potentially a higher risk of exposure to the virus,” said Hill.

Getting the word out within the territory was itself a major task. There are approximately 15,000 residents in the reserve — most of whom are Haudenosaunee, known in French as the Iroquois — clustered in smaller communities spread across more than 180 square kilometres.

Newsletters and fliers were distributed to every home, news releases were issued through the tribal council’s website, and a daily briefing on Facebook has kept community members apprised of every step of the lockdown.

“It’s just pulling all of the resources we have in every department to put out messaging,” said tribal councillor Nathan Wright, one of the elected officials on the emergency control group. “Not only from the standpoint of the health and safety perspective but also for mental health reasons.

“We recognize that mental health is an issue because of the measures that public health has taken. We have been secluded in our homes, so continuing to put that support out there for the community is important.”

At its peak, there were 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Six Nations of the Grand River, and one person died on April 9. There are currently no active cases in the territory.

Hagersville, Ont., a town of less than 3,000 people just outside of the reserve, has had one of the worst outbreaks in the province, with the Anson Place nursing home having 28 confirmed resident cases, 29 confirmed staff cases and 23 resident deaths.

Wright says that like most Canadians, the people of the Six Nations of the Grand River are anxious to get back to normal life.

“‘When are we going to see a normal? What’s it going to look like?'” said Wright. “That’s the work that we’re undertaking in the next couple of weeks.

“I would say it’s been an overwhelming positive response. I’m pretty proud of our community in terms of how they have responded.”

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Follow @jchidleyhill on Twitter

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect figure for the number of confirmed cases in the community.

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