THUNDER BAY – The Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) wrote to Minister Greg Rickford and Minister Sylvia Jones to address a concern that municipalities in the Northwest collectively share related to the upcoming spring thaw and forest fire season that results in the periodic need to evacuate First Nation communities.
NOMA was clear their concerns stem from community capacity to welcome evacuees while addressing protocols associated with COVID-19. NOMA communities acknowledged that there is a willingness to accommodate evacuees when resources are in place to do so, but given the situation currently underway, the board identified concerns communities have.
“Ensuring the safety and wellbeing of evacuees is our first priority,” said Wendy Landry, NOMA President and Mayor of the Municipality of Shuniah. Landry expressed concern that as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Municipalities have laid off staff and are working with an extremely reduced workforce.
“Those who continue to work are focused on essential service delivery and activities associated with continuity of governance and business operations. There is no capacity to deal with the heavy workload of emergency evacuation management normally carried out by host municipality staff,” she added.
Municipal facilities normally used by evacuated people are closed (recreation, libraries, parks). Further causing concern to municipal leaders is that support services in sectors such as mental health, child and family services, are working at greatly reduced capacity.
First Nation communities are undertaking various activities, ‘lockdowns’, in an effort to keep the virus from entering their communities.
“Some may be successful, but we are extremely worried about the impact of the spread into remote communities without medical resources available. If a remote northern First Nation has no cases at the time an evacuation is required, it seems to make little sense to endanger their population by evacuating to a municipality to which the virus has already spread,” said Landry.
NOMA requested that the province work with First Nations, and their Federal counterparts, to develop evacuation plans that recognize municipal limitations. NOMA suggested expanding additional host communities that can relatively house military bases both fixed or temporary or portable housing and facilities set up in serviced Provincial Parks.