This summer, the Chief of Long Plains First Nation Dennis Meeches gifted me advice: “Maeengan, use this time to strengthen yourself and your family. Come closer together and focus on what matters to your heart. View this pandemic as a time out. We will get through this together.”
In March 2020, North America experienced the first wave of the COVID-19 global pandemic. In Canada, the federal and provincial governments declared a state of emergency, initiating a shutdown across the country. In southwestern Manitoba, the territory of the tribal governments of the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council (DOTC) closed our communities from the general public, limiting access to essential travel only.
This is our story.
The purpose of sharing it here is to use the experience of the DOTC as an example of tribal government pandemic planning. It is not the best plan, nor the be-all-end-all plan, but it is the best one for the Tribal Council.
It is rooted in relationships, history, and location. It is rooted in experience, skills, and knowledge. It is rooted in compassion, a willingness to get the job done, and the belief that we cannot rely on anybody, or any government, to help us—that any solution comes from us.
This is our plan.
About the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council
The DOTC is Canada’s oldest Tribal Council. Incorporated on August 8, 1974, it is a nonprofit program and service delivery organization for six First Nations communities. It was created to take administrative control over the affairs of Dakota and Ojibway communities in order to improve their socioeconomic status and improve their quality of life.
The DOTC provides essential services to 20,000 citizens on and off the reservations. It has ten departments that cover everything from police and health services to Yellowquill College, with an estimated 230 full-time staff, an additional 100 staff on call, and close to 200 students and 1,500 housing tenants in off-reserve housing. It is governed by the Council of Chiefs, who represent each of the six communities, and an executive committee, currently led by Chief Executive Officer Robert Daniels. I serve as the economic development coordinator.
The mandate of the DOTC is to support member communities’ self-determination efforts and the direction toward which they are leading themselves. To this end, the DOTC is a servant.
For the DOTC, the need for an emergency response plan is a recent phenomenon brought about by climate change. As a result of several recent weather events, the DOTC has sprung into action to assist our communities.
The first experience happened in July 2016 when Long Plain First Nation experienced an Enhanced Fujita Scale 1 (EF1) tornado, and 200 citizens were evacuated and homes and infrastructure were damaged. The DOTC assisted with the recovery efforts over three days by providing mental health support, increasing nursing capacity, and providing meals for citizens and recovery workers.
The second response was needed in October 2019 when Manitoba experienced an ice storm that affected the provincial power grid. Thirteen First Nations declared a state of emergency. Three DOTC communities evacuated their citizens, and the DOTC combined their operations with the Canadian Red Cross. By deploying its Community Crisis First Aid Station within twenty-four hours of the storm, DOTC provided mental health support and hot meals for evacuated citizens and established three welcome centers for returning evacuees.
As a result of these crises, the DOTC adapted the Incident Command System (ISC), a management system designed to focus organizational efforts in response to an emergency through operations, logistics, finance, and planning. Through the ISC and daily reports, there is improved communications between the individual departments and with the Council of Chiefs and upper management.
The National Shutdown
At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, from March 23 to May 7, the DOTC held daily phone meetings for its essential managers to provide situational awareness, get updates on programs, identify challenges, and create action items for the next twenty-four hours.
We did what we did with what we had and what we knew at the time. Meaning, we made it up as we went along. Considering the last global pandemic happened with the Spanish Flu of 1918, 102 years ago, there was not a lot of information to assist us in responding to the non-medical component of pandemic planning.
On the medical side is the Dakota Ojibway Health Services (DOHS), directed by Gloria Rach. She leads a professional, quiet, and committed healthcare team of nurses and mental health specialists who provide support to the six community health centers.
During the shutdown, Rach said, “This time is critical, but the real test will be during the fall when flu season begins.”
The DOHS was busy creating community pandemic plans and getting the community health centers ready in the event of widespread infections. They also worked with communities to identify isolation centers, stockpiled personal protective equipment, and liaised with the First Nations Inuit Health Branch, regional health authorities, and other stakeholders.
As an organization, all DOTC departments went into shutdown mode and limited interaction with the public and staff, enabling employees to work from home. We established continuity plans in the event of staff shortages, certain departments cross-trained staff on other positions, and the focus centered on member communities: providing support to individuals, health centers, and community lockdowns.
As a team, DOTC managers recognized the need to pull together, share information, support each other, and get things done when the need called for action.
Over the course of the shutdown, we encountered issues related to food security, mental health and addictions, personal protective equipment, service delivery challenges, community safety and community perimeter enforcement, and off-reserve support. With assistance from former Member of Parliament of Winnipeg-Center, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the DOTC was able to secure 10,000 surgical face masks from the government of Taiwan.
Manitoba was an outlier when it came to the rest of North America; it did not experience widespread infections or the resulting strain on the healthcare system. It was in the eye of the storm, and DOTC was ready—as best as it could be—for the impending wave that never came.
Planning for the Second Wave
As things slowly opened up in Manitoba, the DOTC with the Council of Chiefs and directors of the community health centers decided to have a planning retreat in order to regroup, reorganize, and plan together as an organization for the second COVID-19 wave in the fall of 2020. We scheduled this meeting for July 5 to 10, 2020, when the public health orders allowed public gatherings.
Public gatherings were limited to twenty-five people, so the DOTC divided its group into two: DOTC managers, and the Council of Chiefs and health directors. The purpose was to review our experience and identify what worked, what could be improved, and what gaps exist.
We designed the retreat agenda to ensure that safety and mental health workers were on hand to help management and staff. We also incorporated ceremony throughout the week. Charlie Nelson, a traditional knowledge keeper from Roseau River Anicinabe First Nation, and his helpers opened up the event with the traditional Medewiwin “Little Boy” water drum and pipe ceremony. Attendees participated in sharing circles to tell their experiences.
Dr. Esyltt Jones, professor and Dean of Studies at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba, was invited to provide a seminar on the Spanish Flu of 1918. By learning about that global pandemic, we hoped to identify similar responses and solutions. In 1918, First Nations communities had limited access to health care and high rates of infectious diseases, and they experienced food insecurity, poverty, and colonial racism imposed by the Indian Act. Communities that had access to the outside world experienced a high rate of infection; communities that were isolated did not.
According to Jones, Indigenous peoples used Western medicine and health services when they could but also relied on traditional medicines, knowledge-keepers, and medicine people in the fight against the pandemic. In closing, she talked about the resiliency of Ojibway women who volunteered as nurses and worked tirelessly to support their communities during the 1918 pandemic, and how the jingle dress was used as a healing ceremony to support their communities.
Over the course of the week, the DOTC managers, Council of Chiefs, and community health directors agreed upon their vision, goals, principles, and values. By reviewing their shared experiences as a community during the first three months of the pandemic, we identified opportunities for action and collaboration. At a high level, a variety of social factors influenced and positioned the DOTC member communities and the organization within the global pandemic. We acknowledge and understand that certain things will be out of our control., but by assuming control over certain components within the DOTC’s influence, the DOTC can address and mitigate issues that may be apparent in the second wave.
Ultimately, we created the collective blueprint of the DOTC Operational Preparedness Plan. Going forward, each department will implement the plan specific to their community and organizational mandate during the pandemic.
The DOTC Operational Preparedness Plan
Beginning November 12, the Province of Manitoba will be going into a shutdown for at least four weeks; the DOTC is prepared as best as it can be to serve our communities. The Operational Preparedness Plan is a living document, subject to revision as the need arises. It outlines what DOTC will do during the second wave and the steps needed to prepare. It provides clarity of the organizational vision, goals, principles, and values, and channels the activities into a logic-model work plan. (Download the template.)
Protection and safety of our communities
∙ Improved Health Quality & Quantity
∙ Increased Social Cohesion & Well-Being
∙ Increased Community Safety & Security
∙ Enhanced Communication & Coordination
Principles and Values
∙ Pragmatic & Rational
∙ Resourceful & Capable
∙ Relations & Connected
∙ Committed & Compassionate
The purpose of the logic-model work plan is to identify the objectives and organize them into the appropriate goal of the plan. Then we prioritized the objectives (high, medium, and low), set a time frame for completion, and identified who is responsible for each task, what activities need to be completed to accomplish it, and the cost associated.
The DOTC presented the plan and the adapted ISC system to the Council of Chiefs and to the community health directors to show how the DOTC will be supporting them during the pandemic.
“We take care of our own,” remarked Robert Daniels, DOTC CEO, at the end of the session. “And as a small organization that plans, I believe we punch above our weight.”
Into the Unknown, but Better Prepared
When I was a boy, my Uncle Percy Ningwance said to me, “Nature is cruel, and it is through that cruelty that we learn to live with nature with respect.” As we learn more about COVID-19 through our shared experience, I have learned the following in the past several months.
There is a lot of disinformation out there that is based on fear. Trust the information provided by the World Health Organization. Their information is used by the Government of Canada, the Province of Manitoba, and other governments around the world. It is science-based and vigorously tested in peer-reviewed articles. If the WHO recommends that you wear a mask, stay six feet away from each other, and wash your hands frequently in order to disrupt the spread of the virus, do it.
It’s important to recognize the colonial history of Indigenous people and settlers and its effects. We experienced genocide as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1949) when our children were removed from their home communities. Its lingering effects have created an environment of systematic discrimination, poverty, and lateral violence. We must not conform to the colonial narrative and the old ways of tribal politics of division; we must focus our energy on our family’s protection and work together for the betterment of the tribe. We need to have all hands on deck and work together as a community.
We live and exist with the odds against us. Indigenous peoples are survivors. We find a way to live. We are a tough people. As an organization, we recognize that the people who sit across the table outgun us in education, income levels, and power and influence. But our strength comes in our creativity, our resourcefulness, and our spiritual beliefs. These keep us strong. Invoking spirit through ceremony is a strength, and the power of prayer and faith cannot be discounted. Coupled with mindful practice of social distancing and other health measures, utilizing the gifts bestowed upon us by the Creator is an equalizer.
And for everyone: take time to treat yourself gently; you may not be reacting as fast, as quickly, or efficiently. You may feel more anxious and stressed about the global events. It is okay. We (as the human race) are experiencing a global pandemic. Focus on what you can control. And remember, vulnerability is not a weakness but a strength. It means that you care.
In Ojibway we say miigwich, in Dakota wopida—thank you.
Maeengan Linklater is the economic development coordinator for the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council and “other duties as assigned” like emergency response. He is originally from Lac Seul First Nation, Ontario.