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The sign confronting drivers on the road into Jean Marie River First Nation is clear: due to Covid-19, visitors aren’t invited.

Sometimes a resident may check to see that the message is respected. If all else fails, Chief Stanley Sanguez lives near the road and can radio in notice of an unfamiliar vehicle to the band office.

Jean Marie River is a short drive off Highway 1. Google Maps image

“If we have to chase them out, then we have to chase them out,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Sanguez is prepared to shut down community access entirely, perhaps by parking a large vehicle across the road.

The chief is concerned about the impact of any potential outbreak among the 80 residents of Jean Marie River. It could be devastating.

“If this comes to our community, it’s going to wipe our community out,” he said.

The First Nation’s foreman knocks on the doors of elders, checking if they’re OK. The community’s leadership has asked residents, especially elders living alone, to place coloured papers in their windows as a signal: green means good, yellow means help-needed, and red means trouble.

Meanwhile, some community members have gone out on the land, though Sanguez said spring thaw may be a concern to them.

For supplies, the First Nation has made bulk orders with MSS out of Hay River. Masks and gloves, however, are nowhere to be found. Sanguez hopes protective gear will be distributed among communities soon.

Food costs are partially offset by $28,000 in funding from the Dehcho First Nations.

“It’s a full, different type of life cycle going through now,” said Sanguez. “For the first time in our lifetimes, we’re all stuck in our own little rooms, in our own little houses.”

When word first spread of the pandemic’s potential deadliness, fear was a common response, according to Sanguez. That’s less the case now due to precautions and weekly information calls.

Sanguez experienced the intense anxiety first-hand. When the crisis was in its early days, he’d recently returned from a housing summit in Toronto. He promptly tested his whole household and self-isolated, he said.

As Sanguez awaited test results, he was afraid. He worried what would happen if the results came back positive and if he had spread the sickness to his family. Concerned, he wept before the nurse gave him the results over the phone.

“When the nurse (called) in, it scared me so much, I cried,” he recalled.

The nurse asked him if he wanted to hear the good news, or the good news, and Sanguez felt a weight lift off him. He called his wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law over, telling them the nurse was on the line.

“You guys are all negative,” Sanguez recalled the nurse saying to his relief.

“Oh my gosh, I was crying in fear and at the same time I was crying in joy,” he said.

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Nick Pearce

Nick Pearce is a writer and reporter in Yellowknife, looking for unique stories on the environment and people that make up the North. He's a graduate of Queen's University, where he studied Global Development...

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