Throughout this difficult time, many of us are checking on our neighbours to make sure they’re all right, that they have what they need, and most especially, to show we care about them. However, such outreach works both ways. Maybe the neighbours turn out to have a better handle on something that would help your family, like how to find an open service or access to the latest numbers and developments — not for the entire province, but for this particular locality. Exchanges of information on how to cope when times are tough are a big part of being a community in the first place. With this in mind, the Gleaner contacted two sets of neighbours in the Valley, initially just to see how they’re doing: the Mohawk communities of Kahnawake and of Akwesasne. We found out we all have a lot to learn from their response to this crisis.
The residents of Kahnawake, the Kahnawa’kehro:non, have not only their usual community website, www.kahnawake.com (where they can find a COVID-19 Task Force section and phone numbers for all local government departments). They also have a dedicated Facebook page, Kahnawake 911, where people can get daily live video briefings from their own local doctors and community officials. For example, we all heard a couple weeks ago that there were a number of cases on this reserve (at press time, around 13, still alarming given the small community of about 8,000 residents), and that the reserve was locking down, trying to protect a population that has a high number of vulnerable members. The good news is that so far, some of those cases are either resolved or very mild; that as of press time there have been no cases reported among the patients at the Kateri Memorial Hospital in Kahnawake (and only one of a doctor coming back from the United States, who has selfisolated). And, in contrast with the terrible stories we’re hearing about the appalling spread of the virus and inhumane conditions in old people’s homes all over Quebec and Ontario, also at press time there are no COVID-19 cases in eldercare in Kahnawake, neither in their section of the hospital nor in their residence.
Besides constant updates on services, both sites have links to local radio, access to government funding programs (always with local people in mind), updates on new measures, including banning large fires but permitting small, family campfires; prohibiting community access to outsiders (if you’ve crossed the territory to get to the Mercier Bridge, you’ve seen the signage); and where to get free food or mental health help. There are even recipes and a steady stream of comments, including some criticisms but mostly expressions of gratitude from the residents.
Merrick Diabo, interim associate principal of the Kahnawake Survival School (the high school), explained that, unlike provincial high schools, this one is offering real online tutorials for Grades 10-11, complete with their kids’ regular teachers. This started April 6, and although not compulsory, is enjoying an incredible 90 per cent participation rate, among both students and teachers. “I have a directive to make it optional,” Diabo says, “because we can’t speak to what everyone’s household situation is like. Is that older student helping care for their younger siblings? Or a teacher might have four kids at home, and to do this every day would be almost impossible; so there has to be an optout. Still, it’s doing very well.” Why just these two grades? “It’s a crucial year for [qualifying for acceptance at] CEGEPs,” Diabo says. “I called all the parents and especially the students who were struggling already, to explain that if they don’t try to be part of participation and attendance, their kids will likely be out of luck for next year. Then the parents are more on board.”
Diabo says that they’re proud of the outreach they’re doing on every level. “Outsiders tune into our COVID updates because they’re local, not province-wide. There’s a community emergency fund started, our drive-by testing centre at our hospital (for residents only) is working well. The two hot zones for us are Pierre Boucher Hospital [and] Charles LeMoyne Hospital [both in Longueuil], which is where an ambulance would take people for COVID complications.” (At present, these two hospitals are the ones designated to handle any COVID-19 cases in the whole Montérégie.) Diabo’s workday, like that of many of the other community officials, is not just at normal level but well beyond, even though it’s being done with three active kids in the house. “I’m working every day online, lots of paper work, video-conferencing,” he says, admitting that he’s “a bit envious of those being paid to be home with family.” Such official community work, going on all around the Valley, deserves everyone’s gratitude and recognition.
Abraham Francis, science officer for the Council of Akwesasne, is in a similar situation at the western end of the Valley. Besides its website (www.akwesasne.ca), this community of approximately 13,000 has also set up a Facebook page (at Mohawk Council of Akwesasne) with constant updates, advice, links to services, ways to volunteer, even book clubs. They pre-empted some of Quebec’s efforts at slowing infection by locking down completely as early as March 13. Francis says, “Our council immediately put out a quarantine plan if you travelled, shut down schools and our eldercare facilities — no one in or out already by then. We’ve only had one case so far, no complications; and are now implementing an 8 p.m. curfew. St. Regis has an outside-the-territory travel ban, because there was a super-fast increase in cases in St. Lawrence County, N.Y., so we have to be careful within our community; many people shop in Massena.” They also began coordinating delivery of 850 free food boxes a week to elders, individuals in quarantine and families who have children from kindergarten to 11th grade. For those who can come get the food boxes, there’s a drivethrough pickup every Friday. Francis says, “We also have gloves, hand sanitizer and masks, etc., for our residents. We’d put in an order a long time ago. Before things got sold out our director had also done a huge order of soups, crackers, eggs, milk, butter, and so on, which are stored in our arena on Cornwall Island.”
At the border All Akwesasronon [residents of Akwesasne] are allowed to move across the border within their reserve. Francis says, “The Canadian border is technically shut down, but because we work with them so much in Cornwall and with the Americans on the western portion, they’ve been understanding about letting us cross with our status cards. Our community was split by this international border, not by us. We’re not allowed to go through at Dundee, just within the reserve and of course to the hospitals that would serve us.” That would be in Massena or Malone.
This is impressive, especially the early lockdown and supply management. Francis says there are “layers of reasons. We have a lot of vulnerable people, and our elders mean a lot to us, we want to protect them.” When asked how he’s doing, he says, “It’s weird, I’m just as busy, but I’m also accomplishing things I didn’t have time or energy for before, like we have a quarantine reading group, we set up the Google Drive and hang out, having conversations, about how the book or article intersects with what’s happening, how we’re feeling. This work provides emotional and intellectual support; I love talking with everybody.”