Indigenous in Canada turn to the land to survive coronavirus

Paul Petrin, an Indigenous man of Cree/Iroquois and French descent, is used to spending weeks in the wilderness in Canada’s north. For more than two decades, he has cultivated a comfortable life in a cabin near the banks of the Mackenzie River approximately three hours west of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It is a remote area accessible only by boat in the warmer months or snowmobile during the long, frigid arctic winters.

It is a way of living and being connected to and reliant upon the land that brings peace to Petrin, his family and close friends who often join him on trips to the cabin. Now, he is readying to leave his home in Inuvik to head back to the land – this time, he hopes, to get away from the threat of coronavirus.

“Everyone’s [in Inuvik] getting ready to go to their camps,” he told Al Jazeera via phone. “People are starting to panic. The shelves in the stores are getting empty.”

The town of Inuvik is home to a mostly Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit) population. There are just over 3,000 people living there. Currently there are no reported cases of the coronavirus in Inuvik, but the town is taking precautions by enforcing social distancing rules at local stores. The Northwest Territories provincial government banned all non-essential travel into the territory due to the pandemic on March 20.
‘We are isolated here’

The town relies on food and other essentials being delivered by truck to the local supermarket, coming from the south on the only road in or out – the Mackenzie Highway. Food prices are high as a result, making stocking up for a quarantine expensive.

But there is a calm in Petrin’s voice as he explains that this is something he had been expecting to happen one day. It is good to know how to live off the land, he says. People are helping each other right now, helping is a part of their culture, and no one will be left behind, he adds.

“We are so thankful for our camp. I’ve been preparing for over 20 years knowing there may be a day we’ll have to go live out in the bush … this world isn’t a pretty place. Our roadways could be cut off like that – we are isolated here as it is.”

It is not easy living at the cabin. There is constant work to do: gathering and cutting wood to keep warm, maintaining the upkeep of the cabin and harvesting food from the land, he explains. But he would not have it any other way.

“We can do whatever we want out here. The kids play. We hunt, fish, and trap. The Earth is here for us – the animals, the plants, everything. The water is good, it’s clear in spring.”

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