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Sahtu outbreak underscores inequalities, Dene chief says

A file photo of Colville Lake
A file photo of Colville Lake. Charwalker/Wikimedia

The Dene National Chief says the Sahtu’s Covid-19 outbreak illustrates the disparities between small communities in the Northwest Territories and larger hubs like Yellowknife. 

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Norman Yakeleya said the outbreak was making clear “the distinction of the two standards of the healthcare system in the North.” 

Yakeleya called for more rapid testing in affected communities, something he noted has been swiftly deployed in Yellowknife in the past.

While rapid testing has been available across the territory since December 2020, supplies have been dwindling in some communities. Territorial health minister Julie Green on Thursday told Cabin Radio a shortage of nursing staff and laboratory technicians was hindering the NWT’s response in the Sahtu.



Yakeleya said the need for more staff and facilities was compounded by a lack of adequate housing, making it difficult to stop the spread of Covid-19.

In Colville Lake, where more than four in five homes have major problems, 55 out of an estimated 151 residents – more than a third of the community – now have Covid-19, the NWT government said on Thursday.

“Families are being torn apart because of Covid and for safety,” Yakeleya said. “The chief in Colville Lake said ‘I’m homeless’ because his family is affected. Where do we put people who are negative in the sense of their testing? Where do they go?” 

Yakeleya urged people in affected communities who do not have symptoms of Covid-19 and who have tested negative to go out on the land if they can, to give people who must isolate more places to stay. 



Smaller communities also face a lack of food security and high food prices, limited RCMP services, and few transportation options, the chief said. 

“We’re starting to see things for what they are and Covid is showing it to us, how fast a small community can be affected by the spread and the outbreak,” he said.

“The communities are doing the best they can with the resources they have.” 

Tommy Kakfwi, the Chief of Fort Good Hope, earlier this week said his community is “in dire need” of government resources, highlighting understaffing at the community’s health centre and the impact on essential services with municipal staff having to isolate.

Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, and Colville Lake have all declared states of emergency in response to rising case counts. More than one in 10 Fort Good Hope residents currently has the disease.

This is by far the biggest outbreak in the territory to date, already doubling the NWT’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic with more expected to come.

Health officials announced the outbreak’s first cases of Covid-19 on August 14, reporting one positive case in each of Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope. Five days later, there were 170 reported active cases

Yakeleya said the Dene Nation is implementing its own rapid response team and said the Canadian Rangers should be called in to help. Speaking with CBC’s Power and Politics on Thursday, NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane said the Rangers would be approached.



“This is active, it’s live,” said Yakeleya, calling on leaders to collaborate.

“We are basically fighting for our survival.” 

The NWT government has already asked the federal government and Red Cross for support like more healthcare staff and supplies. The territorial health authority has asked its staff to come forward for reassignment and help people on the outbreak’s front line.

Yakeleya said people across the territory can help by offering prayers to the Sahtu, and can contact the Dene Nation about donations of food and other supplies. 

“Praying is very powerful for us,” he said.

The national chief encouraged those who are able to get vaccinated to do so, saying it formed the best defence against Covid-19. 

“Think about your children, think about the protection of the people in the communities and the harm we’re now witnessing first-hand,” he said.

“We now know that Covid is real. It’s deadly. It’s a superspreader.”