Fort Chipewyan, with a curfew imposed, rides out the pandemic
Alice Rigney peeks out of her kitchen window at the weather outside. “I’m getting cabin fever in here,” she says of being homebound for over three weeks in Fort Chipewyan.
The 68-year-old says she has “done a lot of reading, cleaned out I don’t-know-how-many drawers.” She laughs, then her voice momentarily is silent again.
“I don’t listen to much news or go on Facebook too much. Sometimes I get anxiety, or depression. My husband is gone, and this is a time I would really need him.”
Rigney is in lockdown with her three grandchildren. They’re keeping safe from the threat of the coronavirus.
In March, local officials formed a partnership to close off the northern Alberta town. Like many Indigenous communities, Fort Chipewyan’s remote location and limited medical resources make it more vulnerable to an outbreak of Covid-19.
“We have to protect our people,” said Mikisew Chief Archie Waquan on implementing a strict 11pm-to-5am mandatory curfew and blocking access in or out. Even the airport is closed except for essential service deliveries.
“In my opinion, it’s dumb,” says David Stewart, 36, who runs one of the two gas stations in Fort Chipewyan. He’s also a member of the Mikisew Cree and not too worried about the virus coming there.
He says young people not respecting social distancing and “partying” openly have ruined it for everyone.
“The curfew is too much. We’re not kids. There’s a handful of kids drinking and walking around the community yelling at night,” said Stewart. “The parents of those kids are responsible for them – those kids should’ve been sat on at home.”
But Chief Waquan stressed leadership isn’t taking chances.
“We are serious about what we are doing. A lot of the young people don’t understand what Covid-19 is even about. We aren’t trying to keep them under wraps, we are trying to keep them safe,” he said.
‘I hug him and say stay home’
Fort Chipewyan officials employ a security team to patrol the community, ensuring everyone is abiding by the rules at night. Anyone caught outside beyond the designated hours receives one warning. “Further non-compliance … will result in the cancellation of any future financial disbursements and/or considerations,” read a community bulletin posted on Mikisew Cree First Nation Facebook page.
As a boy, Waquan remembered his father speaking of the Spanish Flu epidemic that hit the community hard. He doesn’t want a repeat.
“He told us they couldn’t bury [the dead] fast enough,” said Waquan.
Rigney, a respected Elder in Fort Chipewyan, remembers sad stories her mother told her of the pandemic.
Another burden is just over the horizon. She is counting the days until the three-year anniversary of her son Keith Marten’s disappearance during a hunting trip.
“It’s painful to remember … I loved him his whole life and I will miss him for the rest of my life,” she said.
Keith, 45, was one of four men from Fort Chipewyan who vanished from the Rocher River north of town.
The bodies of all four were recovered over a two-month period. It was a devastating tragedy for the tight-knit community of about 1,000.
Rigney sprinkled her son’s remains at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Athabasca. It’s comforting for her to know his memory lives on.
The anniversary will be difficult. The will to be there for her living children and grandchildren keeps her going, she says.
She is upfront with her younger grandchildren about what’s going on in the world. She explains to them why they can’t leave the house right now.
“My six-year-old grandson says, ‘I don’t want to die’ … I hug him and say stay home and I’ll protect him,” she said.
“I always have hope and as long as the community thinks the same way, that hope will become reality. I look forward to the day [Covid-19] will end. We will be dancing in the streets.”
There are currently no reported cases of Covid-19 in Fort Chipewyan.
Isolation units available for anyone presenting with Covid-19 symptoms. Chief Waquan is praying they stay empty.
“We are hoping we never have to use them,” he said.