Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of the Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation and Fort Providence Mayor Danny Beaulieu have been working closely together to help navigate residents into the warmer weather as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impede everyday life.
The First Nation approved a checkstop being erected on April 30 and longtime resident and Aurora College educator Riz Khimji volunteered to coordinate it with friends and co-workers.
“The main idea is to deter people from out of town from coming into the community, especially from out of province,” he said.
Khimji said there are no cases of Covid-19 in Fort Providence and that it’s important to ensure people coming in from Alberta and Saskatchewan are self-isolating for 14 days.
“We’ve been trying to deter that kind of traffic coming to Fort Providence, considering we are right on the highway,” he said.
People who go through the checkpoint can expect to be met by two volunteers at any given time with a truck, stop signs and pylons. Visitors receive a Covid-19 awareness information sheet from community members.
Khimji said if people are from out of town, they will be asked to fill out a two-minute questionnaire that will require the visitor to explain why they are coming through, how long are they coming for, who is being visited and all of the names of the people in the vehicle.
Khimji stressed that the checkpoint is not a blockade and that the group of eight volunteers who run it do not have the ability to turn people away, as that is a police function. If a visitor does not abide by the checkpoint’s protocols and insists on driving through, however, Khimji said the vehicle will be flagged and police will be notified.
“Right now we’re just trying it on a trial basis to find out what times the traffic comes the most,” he said, noting that the checkpoint isn’t in operation around the clock. “So right now, we’ve been doing eight-hour shifts, 12-hour shifts. Eventually once we know the best traffic time, then we will schedule shifts according to that.”
Fort Providence Mayor Danny Beaulieu said he let the First Nation decide whether to allow the checkstop.
“The chief asked me about it but we never brought it to council and I told him it was up to them if they want to do a checkstop,” he said. “Legally, I don’t think you are supposed to do that, but nobody is stopping them.”
Khimji said the checkpoint is not related to illegal alcohol and drugs being brought into the community at this point, even as this is something Beaulieu and Bonnetrouge have been concerned about since the beginning of the pandemic.
Complaints of alcohol or rules broken
Beaulieu and Bonnetrouge have said that since the pandemic, complaints about excessive drinking, partying and people not following social distancing have been prevalent.
“The mayor and myself have been fielding phone call after phone call after phone call,” Bonnetrouge said in a recent interview. “Complaints about people not following the rules and people coming back here and not self-isolating for 14 days and doing that kind of stuff. So it has been a riot that way.”
Bonnetrouge said one of the big problems has been the influx of federal money coming into the community through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
“There has been a big gush of federal and territorial governments’ money coming into the community,” he said. “The RCMP were complaining, (not long ago) that the ATMs could not keep up in this community. Drug dealers and bootleggers know when the town is flush with cash. They know.”
Although the GNWT has put a limit on alcohol purchases, Bonnetrouge would like to see more done.
“To be able to still carry six mickeys on your person, that is still a lot,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave any opening for bootleggers. If there is three members of a family going to Hay River for example, (you could still buy) 18 bottles of mickeys.
Bonnetrouge said the battle continues to try to cut down on the amount that people are drinking and it has been a difficult fight.
“For the community, because we still have two bars in this First Nations community, it’s been a struggle,” he admits, noting the Big River Service Centre and the Snowshoe Inn bar. “It’s been a struggle trying to get people to at least cut down on consumption. It’s no secret that like any other community we’ve had had numerous and big-time complaints, mostly from families against bootleggers.”
Beaulieu said not much has changed despite the territorial government’s liquor purchase restrictions.
“The government has cut down on how much booze a person can buy at the liquor store, but it still comes into the community,” he said. “Bootlegged bottles are a little more than they used to be because (people) are limited at the liquor store. People are still buying the booze and for some reason it seems like there’s more parties going on than there used to be before Covid-19.”
He said police remain busy and on weekends because people are drinking heavily.
“So social distancing doesn’t really exist when that happens,” he said.
Hamlet councillor Linda Croft agreed that excessive drinking has been a problem and also blames it on the community being awash with cash from the federal government.
“I do know that there was a lot of money in town and a lot of partying going on,” she said. “I saw that at my job at the Big River Service Centre.
“The Snowshoe Inn bar closed last weekend and I think they’re trying to get some of the partying under control and down. But of course with large sums of money coming in from CERB payments and things like that, you can’t do anything. So what do you do with the money?”
In general, Croft said it seems that residents haven’t been taking the Covid-19 pandemic very seriously. Last month, she said she noticed it was a continued problem in her store.
“You know, there’s a still not a lot of self-isolation going on and people are doing their own thing,” she said. “I think the fact that there’s so few cases here, I guess for a lot of people it’s hard to take it seriously. If we were somewhere like Calgary where people are dying every day, they might be a bit more inclined to stay at home.”
Croft said with the nicer weather, people area also wanting to get outside more often.
On the land
Bonnetrouge, like other Dene chiefs, has been encouraging members to get out on the land, both as a social distancing exercise and as a way to engage in traditional practices.
“The Canadian geese have been coming and a lot of guys have been taking their Ski-Doos up to Mink Lake,” he said, adding that the weather was quite cool during April.
“It’s tradition here because of where we are situated. For years in the springtime people make little camps up the river and it’s called winter crossing. People put up a lean-to or cabin and they stay out there close to Mother Nature to get ducks and geese. Once the ice moves, it is good fishing,” he said.