When COVID-19 arrived, Chief David Monias and his community in northern Manitoba faced an unprecedented challenge. The end of the pandemic can’t come soon enough.

Every time a chartered plane takes off from Cross Lake Airport and passes over Pimicikamak Cree Nation, Chief David Monias pauses. “It breaks my heart,” he says of the flights, which take COVID-19 positive community members to Winnipeg for medical treatment and alternate isolation accommodations. “I feel for these people. I don’t want them to have to leave their homes or the community, but we’re left with no choice because we don’t have the medical resources or the infrastructure to take care of them here.”

Monias knew he’d face some tough hurdles when he was elected in 2019, but never imagined he’d tackle a pandemic. The First Nation—home to nearly 10,000 people—has been in some form of lockdown since last March and a complete lockdown since last October. Checkpoints monitor traffic, collect contact information and take the temperature of anyone entering Pimicikamak, also known as Cross Lake First Nation; only essential workers and those heading south for medical appointments can travel to and from the community.

But—despite a slew of proactive measures, including a curfew and food deliveries—the virus found its way in, pushing health-care workers to the brink as they test, treat, contact-trace and register patients for evacuation. At one time there were more than 200 actives cases. Canadian Armed Forces members arrived in late February to provide respite and medical assistance, while the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has committed to sending 30 ambassadors to help take pressure off Pimicikamak’s essential service providers.

A critical lack of housing—Monias estimates 1,000 new homes are needed to alleviate overcrowding—makes physical distancing difficult if not impossible in many cases. Classrooms, gyms and even the local hotel have been commandeered to create quarantine facilities.

Monias knows people in his community are feeling cooped up and frustrated, but asks them to stay strong, providing information and encouragement via radio broadcasts and Facebook livestreams. He also relies on the personal touch: most people in the community have his cell number. In January, he received a call like no other. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying, all I heard was ‘baby,’ ‘washroom,’ ‘floor’ and ‘no ambulance,’ so I ran out the door with one sock, putting on my boots,” says Monias. “The things we do as chiefs, you would never see that with a mayor.”

He arrived at the same time as paramedics, and the child was delivered by its grandmother. As for his own grandson, COVID-19 restrictions mean Monias hasn’t seen him since his birth last September. Monias isn’t seeing much of his wife—a nurse with the community’s rapid response team—either.

But it’s concerns for the children and the Elders that keep him up at night. “I’m scared for mental health issues; what kind of impact will this have? Because there is a lot of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, so we’re dealing with all that kind of stuff,” Monias says. He knows the sacrifices people have made and thanks them for it, but says the only way to truly manage the virus is with the vaccine. More doses—about 200 people had been vaccinated by late February—can’t come soon enough, he says.

This profile appeared in the April 2021 issue of Maclean’s, where we gave our magazine over to a 22,000-word special report, “Year One: The untold story of the pandemic in Canada.” Sign up to read that whole story, and learn why we did it.