A northern First Nation in Manitoba is facing criticism for its lockdown measures after a group of mothers left for a grocery run Thursday and there was an attempt to prevent them from returning to the community.
“You think you would be able to go out and just provide for your family and they’re making it seem like it’s a crime to do so,” said Caitlin Francois, a mother of six.
On Thursday, Francois and a group of other mothers from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), about 670 kilometres north of Winnipeg, made plans to travel to nearby Thompson, Man., to get things like diapers, groceries and other essentials.
The shopping trip was a violation of NCN’s current lockdown restrictions, which have been in place since Dec. 23. They bar people from leaving their homes and the community, in an effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
“We can’t leave our houses or go out to buy groceries ourselves,” said Francois.
“So me and a few moms, we were getting worried because our kids are hungry and we haven’t been able to shop personally for my own household since Dec. 15. So I made that decision to just disobey the rules, get out of the house and go shopping in Thompson.”
Under the current restrictions, the community’s grocery store and gas station is closed to the public. The First Nation has assigned seven designated shoppers to make grocery store runs for the approximately 2,300 community members.
“They designated one to two shoppers for a whole area, and the amount of houses in each area is a lot,” said Francois.
The community has also been distributing food hampers to help people through the latest restrictions, but Francois said the hampers don’t have enough food to last families, especially for those living in larger households.
When the group of mothers, travelling in four different vehicles, returned to NCN from their shopping trip, they were met at the community’s entrance by RCMP and First Nations Safety Officers (FNSOs).
Francois, who was travelling with her nine-month-old baby and sister Yolanda Hartie, livestreamed their return on social media after there was an attempt to prevent them from re-entering the community.
The hour-long Facebook live stream prompted some community members to go out and help the women stuck at the checkpoint.
“We only got through because the people there supporting us helped us get through,” said Hartie, who fears what the consequences are going to be for breaking the restrictions.
‘We’re trying our very best’
NCN Chief Marcel Moody defended the shopping restrictions and said there is a need to try and protect the community against the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re trying our very best to meet the needs of our people,” said Moody.
“Our ultimate goal obviously, is to protect our people. I would hate for the cases to rise, and all of a sudden we lose control.”
The community has been dealing with an outbreak since December, which has had 185 cases so far and 15 new cases announced on Thursday.
Moody said there haven’t been any recorded deaths in the community and the overall number of cases has remained low in comparison to other communities, thanks to the restrictions imposed.
“Everybody’s tired. Everybody’s exhausted,” he said.
“I mean, I’m exhausted, I’m sick of it myself. I mean, I can’t give up. We have to try and protect our community and some people don’t see it that way.”
NCN plans to allow people to travel to Thompson this weekend to shop for essentials and restrictions will then likely go back into effect.
He said the community leaders are still weighing out what the consequences will be for the women who left the community.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, RCMP Cpl. Julie Courchaine said Nelson House RCMP responded to a report for assistance at a checkstop on Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation.
“Officers attended to ensure the safety of everyone and to keep the peace,” the statement said.
“As things began to escalate the FNSO’s made the decision to allow the vehicles through. No criminal acts took place and RCMP officers were only there to keep the peace.”