Videos circulating on social media show a confrontation between a group seeking to enter the community to deposit food donations on Saturday and a Gull Bay police officer, who refused them entry. The group was largely made up of members of the First Nation who now live off reserve, who reported collecting thousands of dollars in grants and donations to finance the delivery, which filled a number of trucks and trailers.
“We are a member of a group, why are we not allowed to go to our own reserve? A member of the group asked a police officer in one of the videos uploaded to Facebook.
“For the safety of the residents of the reserve,” replied the officer.
“You have to load food into these other trucks, it’s that simple,” the officer later told them.
The group eventually loaded donated food into vehicles belonging to residents of Gull Bay, who organizers say have dropped off food throughout the community. But the incident left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in the community, including Chef Wilfred King.
King said the donation was appreciated but that the community had clearly asked non-residents not to visit after the community was struck by COVID-19 – there are now seven confirmed cases and two other suspects, did he declare.
“We are trying to tell our non-resident members to stay away because we do not know where they have gone and there is a good chance that they will be positive [for COVID-19], ” he said. “We don’t want any more infections in the community. I think that’s very understandable – all the First Nations in this region have done it, to my knowledge. “
King said he thought dropping out and trying to get into the community was a political coup.
“To me, this is all politically motivated,” said King. “It had nothing to do with the lack of food in Gull Bay. The organizers, the people behind them introduce themselves for the chief and the council [in the next election]. “
An organizer behind the donation, Khanena Nowegejick, disputed the claim. Nowegejick has family ties to the community, although he is not technically a member of the First Nation. She said she wanted to help after seeing the only store in the community, which had limited food supplies, was closed when the owner, who is also her cousin, signed a contract with COVID-19.
“Immediately, I think there is no store there,” she said. “I’m a mom and I don’t drive, I can’t imagine being in this pandemic and not being able to walk to the store to get bread or milk. “
Nowegejick said she was concerned about community members who may not have access to a vehicle, with grocery stores closest to Armstrong or Thunder Bay. She started to phone and eventually raised over $ 3,000 for an informal campaign to help the community with food donations.
Group members say the needs of the residents of Gull Bay were not met during the COVID-19 crisis. Henry Belmore, a member of the First Nation who lives in Thunder Bay, offered to use his truck to help deliver food on Saturday. He said community members were hesitant to leave for the grocery store, but were not supported.
“They are basically receiving no help from the chief and council at the moment,” he said.
Nowegejick said that other First Nations distributed food aid during the COVID-19 crisis and did not understand why Gull Bay did not do it.
King, meanwhile, said there was no food security crisis in the community and that there were measures in place to help, if someone was struggling.
“As far as I know, no one has come to the chief and the council to ask for food,” he said. “No one officially made this request. “
The leader said he had developed a plan for the safe transfer of the donated food with one of the group’s organizers, and was frustrated when he was not followed.
“We have established a plan on how it should be delivered safely,” he said. “When we found out that they hadn’t followed the plan and were just going to go through the checkpoint, we said no, it wouldn’t happen.
“I think what bothers me the most … there were about 30 or 40 people there, there was no social distancing. We want to make sure the community is safe. I think they really put themselves in danger, and they also put other members of the community at risk. “
In the end, King said that the donated food had been left in the entrances of some residents who did not want it or were not at home, while dogs had entered some of the packages. He said that this is an example of why he prefers those who want to help go through official channels. One example is the local Roots to Harvest group, which King says has worked with the community for years and helps organize food deliveries using sanitary precautions.
“If people want to donate, we’d like them to go through one of our agencies that we deal with, so we know the food is handled properly. “
In the video, group members also express their frustration that entrepreneurs working on community projects are allowed to enter the community while band members are not. A group member appears to be temporarily blocking the path of an entrepreneur’s van.
“Come on guys, I’m trying to work to help you,” said the driver to the group.
King said the contractors were working on a new water treatment plant, which the community has been looking for for decades. He added that as the work was deemed essential by the provincial government, the band feared that it would be continued by contractors if they stopped construction. He added that the community has taken precautions to minimize the risks.
“What we said was that none of our group members would work on the site, only external workers would enter, they would have passes to pass the checkpoint, they would go directly to the site and after they finish their work they would leave directly, “said King.
King said that if people want to help the community, he prefers to do so by making a donation to partners with whom the community works, such as Roots to Harvest, with whom he says systems are in place to fight the risk of contamination by COVID-19.
Nowegejick said his group’s fundraising efforts have raised more money since Saturday’s return. She said they intend to continue helping the community, but hope to avoid further conflict.