Island communities make plans to ensure ‘vulnerable people’ at home cared for during COVID-19 crisis


MANITOULIN – To ensure as many people stay safe, healthy and secure during the outbreak, groups have emerged around Manitoulin to organize volunteer efforts and ensure the Island’s most vulnerable citizens—elders, those with compromised immune systems, individuals with mobility issues or people facing other challenges—are well taken care of in challenging times.

“We have a pandemic plan and chief and council and our directors have been following that. We have launched a surveillance system for community members who can’t get out or don’t have access to technology and some community members will go around and see if anyone needs anything,” said Nicole Bush, health director at Sheshegwaning First Nation.

Sheshegwaning has brought in a flag system—vulnerable persons are provided with a coloured flag. If they are in need of anything, they put up the appropriate flag so community members can help address their needs.

The Municipality of Gordon/Barrie Island has closed its doors and has pared down to having just its essential staff in the office.

“We know each other pretty well here and everyone has a neighbour or a friend and everybody is checking in on each other. Everybody’s trying and we’re still here (at the town office) if anybody needs help,” said Melanie Chatwell, administrative assistant at Gordon/Barrie Island.

Several municipalities have taken on a co-ordination role with volunteer efforts. The Town of Gore Bay, the Township of Assiginack and the Township of Billings all have volunteer lists and have been seeking more residents to sign up. They also maintain lists of the people who might be in need of assistance and match volunteers with those in need.

“We are acting as a co-ordinator to link up folks who need assistance and those who can provide it. We are also asking folks to let us know of anyone in the community they think might need some assistance so we can check up on them. We are encouraging people to check in on their neighbours,” said Megan Bonenfant, deputy clerk of Billings Township. She cautioned that not everyone is comfortable with their government checking in on them and said Billings is respecting those wishes.

In the Northeast Town, churches and volunteers have taken up the charge when it comes to reaching out to this municipality’s vulnerable residents. The municipality did not wish to take on this role directly, so it was co-ordinated through the Little Current Lions Club, churches and other volunteers in the community.

The town did, however, assist by sending a direct mail-out information flyer created in partnership with this newspaper. It contains crucial information about COVID-19 and resources in town such as delivery services that are available at this time.

For those who may not be associated with a church and be without family, The Expositor Office has opened its phone line to encourage those in the Northeast Town who would like to be added to a vulnerable persons’ registry to call in. They will then be matched with a volunteer who will call them every couple of days, be a friendly voice and a contact to the outside world while running the odd errand. Those wishing to be on that list in the Northeast Town are encouraged to call 705-368-2744 from Monday to Friday.

Many Island First Nations have pandemic preparation plans. Aundeck Omni Kaning band manager Anne Marie Sandford said her First Nation has identified individuals who might need food delivery assistance as well as people who are in self-isolation.

“We jumped right on our emergency preparedness pandemic plan. That, and having everyone working together, has been a big help,” said Ms. Sandford.

Sheguiandah First Nation has been actively sharing information items with its residents, despite having scaled down the office staff to the core workers. It has also been helping its members by providing items like hand sanitizer, although those supplies are limited.

“As of today, most of our population is healthy and we don’t see any signs of the pandemic yet. But we’re encouraging people to stay isolated and practice safe spacing between each other,” said Sheguiandah First Nation band manager Lucy Ann Trudeau.

It’s business as usual in the Township of Tehkummah. Municipal office staff are advising people to try to do whatever business they can over the phone, though they remain able to help their citizens on an as-needed basis. Its aging population (nearly 10 years older than the median age on Manitoulin) means that its approach has to be different from other townships.

“Our entire community is vulnerable,” said clerk-administrator Silvio Berti. “We want people to know that we’re still here for them; we’re not closing or shortening our hours for now. Just call us like you normally do and follow Health Canada’s recommendations.”

Tehkummah has been aiding its people by helping to co-ordinate book drop-offs and grocery runs, though with its small staff it cannot execute these with its own workforce. 

The Municipality of Central Manitoulin has been identifying individuals who may need more than physical assistance during this time.

“It’s not just people that are self-isolating, it’s also people who might need help with their mental health. We’ve spent a lot of time putting out this information to the public; some of it comes right from health professionals,” said CAO and clerk Ruth Frawley.

“Locally, we’re particularly concerned about people returning (to Manitoulin) that are not going into self-isolation. So, we’ve put out a flyer for businesses to put on their front door, reminding people that they should be at home,” said Ms. Frawley.

Central Manitoulin has also set up a 24-hour self-isolation community helpline (as advertised on Page 10 of this newspaper), so those who should not leave their homes can call for assistance.

In the West End, some grassroots mobilization has taken place with congregation members at the Silver Water United Church.

“We’ve had a couple of people volunteer to make grocery runs for others around here,” said Rev. Janice Frame.

A lot of volunteer organization has moved to the digital realm, with many requests and offers of assistance circulating in online groups. Bill Concannon, who manages the nearly 6,700-member Facebook group ‘What’s Doin on the Manitoulin,’ said he has seen dozens of offers to help out fellow Islanders through his group.

“People travel throughout the Island and it’s good to know what’s out there,” said Mr. Concannon. “It’s a virtual Island meeting place where no matter where you are or what your interest is, you can gather all the information you need in one spot.”

Mr. Concannon said some people may feel self-conscious about asking for certain products such as menstrual supplies or adult diapers if they need them, but said this was a time to leave those feelings behind.

“If you need it, you should ask. The whole idea of ‘What’s Doin’ is to help people,” he said.

Wiikwemkoong also has a list of its vulnerable people and the community is working to support those individuals, though further details could not be supplied by deadline Monday. The Expositor contacted Whitefish River First Nation, Burpee and Mills, Zhiibaahaasing First Nation and M’Chigeeng First Nation but did not receive comment by press time.