‘It has been hectic’: First Nation in Alberta fighting COVID-19 case, annual floods

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Chief Jim Badger of Sucker Creek First Nation has the unenviable job of dealing with annual flooding in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It has been hectic, to say the least,” he told Global News in an interview Thursday. 

Located around 350 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, the community reported its first case of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — earlier this week.

It is believed to be the first confirmed case of the virus on a First Nation in Alberta. 

The confirmed case, who previously contacted a confirmed case in High Prairie, is now self-isolating, according to Alberta’s provincial health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw. On Wednesday, she described the First Nation as well-prepared for the pandemic, like other First Nations.

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“This community is dealing with a non-COVID-19 emergency in the form of a flood,” Hinshaw said.

“Communities across Alberta are dealing with other challenges as well.”

Badger says the First Nation has identified an isolation centre — in their case, it’s the recreational centre, with some modifications needed. 

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There has been some difficulty in getting people to appreciate “how serious this really is” he said, but added, “eventually they will come around.” 

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Fear of the unknown as well as speculation is rife, he said.

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You can’t give out names, but the people keep asking who, what,” Badger said.

The First Nation declared a state of local emergency on March 22, before any known case was reported.

Indigenous Services Canada has been working “directly” with the community’s health team, he added.

As for the flooding, the First Nation has been in touch with the province. Badger said they’re expecting a track hoe to clear out debris such as log jams and ice jams from the creeks, which are “overflowing.”

The presence of CN Rail in the area has not helped the problem of flooding, he said.

In an email to Global News, CN Rail said its crews are responding to floods caused by the spring thaw in the Slave Lake area.

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“The flood waters threatening CN’s mainline can cause instability in the ground beneath the rail bed and prevent the safe movement of trains,” the company said.

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“We will continue to work with the Sucker Creek First Nation to address their concerns while ensuring the safe movements of the essential goods.”

Badger said it’s been especially “frustrating” because he had booked rooms for flood evacuees at a hotel, but the booking fell through.

Badger said 25 people are ready to be evacuated and that it’s a matter of finding a place for them to stay. They are also considering other options like camp-style trailers. If the flooding gets worse, there could be as many as 80 evacuees.

“The province is looking at addressing that,” he said. The community also requires protective equipment.

“But both governments [federal and provincial] have been quite good in terms of assistance with the COVID,” Badger said. “And it’s just unfortunate infrastructure issues we’ve had for many years, this annual flood we’re contending with again.
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“There seems to be no end to this.”

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Hinshaw has said that both the province and Ottawa are working to ensure the community and others like it have adequate access to testing and personal protective equipment, “making sure the First Nations have the support that they need.”

Global News reached out to Indigenous Services Canada about what kind of support has been extended to the First Nation, but did not hear back by publication.

Now that the community has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Badger hopes people will “actually take stronger measures and stay home.”

The most important thing for him is everyone’s safety.

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“I have over 60 elders,” Badger said. “I’m really concerned about them, considering what’s happening in McLennan as well.” The Manoir Du Lac retirement home in McLennan is one of the continuing care centres in Alberta with a confirmed outbreak.

“We have members that are in that facility,” he said. “And that’s an ongoing concern as well. But we’ve got to hang in there.”

— With files by Global News reporters Sarah Komadina, Phil Heidenreich

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