Islanders answer the call: Thanking our essential workers

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Expositor wanted to take the time to note some of Manitoulin’s essential workers, Island-wide, and acknowledge their heroic efforts in keeping the supply chain moving and keeping us safe. We know that there are so many other brave Islanders whose names are not listed below, and we wish to give them a chi-miigwetch too.

Alice Bond Usher

Personal Support Worker

Personal support worker Alice Bond Usher has been working at Manitoulin Centennial Manor for 17 years and she worked for another agency for several years before that, but nothing in her experience has prepared her for the reality she and her colleagues now face.

“It’s a lot more stressful for sure,” she said. “It is a different way of life for all of us.”

These days Ms. Bond Usher dons a mask at the beginning of her shift and it pretty much stays in place for her entire shift. “We never had to do that before,” she said. “But if it keeps our residents safe that’s really what it is all about. Everyone these days is so diligent, most of us are just working and going home. If our husbands can’t get out to the grocery store, we are in and out and right home again.”

Ms. Bond Usher had high praise for the Manor’s management team as well. “Management is doing their best,” she said. “Every day it seems they get a new policy directive and then we find a way to integrate it into our day. Everyone is working on this together.”

Ms. Bond Usher said she and her colleagues were devastated when they heard about the positive test results at the other homes. “We were so excited when we got the news that everyone in the Manor had come back negative,” she said. “Because it is a small Island community we all feel for every home.”

“Everyone deals with it in their own way, but we are all working on staying positive. Hopefully, one day, we can all get back to being something close to normal, but I think this is going to be with us like the Norwalk virus or other things we deal with.”

As for the mental toll of the pandemic, Ms. Bond Usher admits that it is challenging, but that she and her colleagues focus on being positive. “I’m kind of a positive person at most times.”

Ms. Bond Usher thanked the community for their outpouring of support—the signs they’ve placed on the lawn, the drive-by parades and heartfelt messages— all of which has helped to lift the spirits of the staff and residents alike. “It really has made a big difference.”

Jeff Wilson

Canada Post

Jeff Wilson

Canada Post carrier Jeff Wilson says he has been delivering a massive amount of mail to the people along his route in the Providence Bay and Spring Bay areas, including packages from online stores.

“It’s good in a way because they’re not going to the stores and risking interacting with people and so forth. There’s a lot of extra people who are here at their camps and ordering stuff too, when they normally don’t even get mail,” said Mr. Wilson, who has worked for the Crown corporation for 29 years.

As much as the workload is a challenge, he says he appreciates that every package is another sign the economy is still charging forward and Canada Post will continue to be a key link in that chain.

“People are being so fantastic. They’re saying thank you when you take stuff to their door and they do their distancing, but usually they make sure they come out when I’m walking away and say thanks,” said Mr. Wilson. “I’m happy I get to be out doing this rather than being stuck in the house all day. At least I get to see people, wave and interact with them as much as we can while still physical distancing.”

Roy Jeffery

Physician

Roy Jeffery

Even during the strict lockdowns of the pandemic, Dr. Roy Jeffery of Little Current still does house calls in his geriatric medicine practice, although he now conducts some visits digitally.

“Not that much has changed for me really,” said Dr. Jeffery. “I am still making house calls, but these days if I can meet up by phone I do.” The phone call check-ups can often suffice if there are no new issues to attend to, he notes. “I wear a mask when I go into a home, but that is really more for the protection of the client than for me.” But when it comes to the emergency room stints it is full on PPE (personal protective equipment). 

“There are also a lot more meetings these days to stay on top of hospital staff as we develop plans,” he said. 

As for the impact of the COVID-19 on his personal mental health, Dr. Jeffery maintains his familiar aplomb. “I am really pleased with how things have gone so far,” he said of the pandemic response. “I think it is stressful for some people, some more than others, but for me? So far my head’s okay,” chuckled the veteran health professional. “But I have had to shave off my beard to make the masks fit properly,” he said ruefully. “I have had the same beard for 40 years.”

Kim Genereux

Registered Practical Nurse

Kim Genereaux

Noojmowin Teg Health Services Anishinaabek health care co-ordinator Kim Genereux has been burning up the hours since the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up.

“It has been busy days for sure,” she said when contacted last week. “I have had two meetings already this morning and another three this afternoon. (The pandemic) has really changed how I do my job tremendously.”

Ms. Genereux assists elders in transitioning from hospital care, ensuring they have the supports necessary to be in a safe environment when they get back home. While some of what she does can take place through Zoom meetings, the clientele she serves is often not that tech savvy.

“I sometimes have trouble with the technology myself,” she laughed. “On the upside, a lot of the elders are learning technology, but for many, especially those with brain injuries or dementia, even a teleconference can be a challenge. But Nooj has some really good supports in place.”

Whenever she enters a home Ms. Genereux is in full PPE. “It’s mask, goggles, cap and gown,” she said. “At first it was difficult for the elders, but they are pretty much used to it by now.”

The pace of change has been very dynamic and that brings its own stress along with it, but the biggest stress for Ms. Genereux will be familiar to many. “It’s family,” she said. “Everybody is missing family, myself included.”

Crystal Robinson

Registered Early Childhood Educator

Crystal Robinson

Crystal Robinson has worked as a registered early childhood educator with Manitoulin Family Resources, and specifically the Little Current Daycare, for just shy of 15 years. It’s fair to say that working with young children is Ms. Robinson’s passion.

Ms. Robinson has been back to work since the end of April when the province announced it would reopen daycares to the children of health care and front-line workers.

She explained that the rules are very strict, with no more than five children allowed per daycare room. Currently, the daycare is seeing a gradual increase in families using the service.

Ms. Robinson said it’s important that she and her co-workers are there so that “parents can go to work and not worry about their childcare.” Ms. Robinson said the daycare is taking all of the appropriate steps such as physical distancing, daily screening and an increase in cleaning which should also help reassure families that the children are safe in their care.

Ms. Robinson admitted to feeling worried at the start, but is feeling more relaxed about being back to work. “We have a lot of rules to follow.”

“It’s nice to be back,” she added. “I’ve missed my kids.”

Janelle Shaw

Personal Support Worker and 

Registered Practical Nurse

Janelle Shaw

At 23, Janelle Shaw is fairly new to the health care field but her passion and dedication to her craft is evident within the first few moments of conversation.

Ms. Shaw is currently employed as a personal support worker with Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) and is also a licenced registered practical nurse and a youth pastor.

Ms. Shaw said that while she doesn’t have to take the Hippocratic Oath like a doctor must, she feels just as bound to her patients as though she did.

“Our clients become our No. 1 priority,” she said. “You’re advocating for them and sometimes even become their decision maker.”

“I feel very passionate about what I’m called to do,” she continued, noting that she does not have a young family or immuno-compromised elderly parents to worry about when she comes home from work.

“If we don’t work, who else is going to?” Ms. Shaw said of caring for our most vulnerable citizens. “If I don’t do it it’s one less person getting care. It’s my job and sense of duty. I love what I do and I hope my clients can see that.”

Ms. Shaw said she begins each morning with a prayer that she keeps all her clients safe.

Ron Cooper

Public Works

Ron Cooper

Ron Cooper has been the public works superintendent for the Township of Assiginack since the spring of 2003 and, along with his crew, continue to keep the daily workings of the municipality going, even during a pandemic.

“In these times, no one knows where to turn,” Mr. Cooper said. “They look for an anchor and we’re that anchor. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

Mr. Cooper said he’s happy to be a constant in his ratepayers’ lives, keeping the roads safe, waste managed and so much more.

Mr. Cooper has high praise for his crew of five. “They had every right to feel unsure but felt that their jobs need to be done—they’re willing to risk their own safety. My crew is excellent.”

Roman Trudeau

Checkpoint Project Supervisor

Roman Trudeau

Roman Trudeau currently oversees the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory border well-being checkpoints, supervising a crew of 20 people.

“Our job is to control and monitor the people coming in and out of the community,” Mr. Trudeau told The Expositor.

Mr. Trudeau said that COVID-19 has “always been a real thing” to him and he’s taken the virus seriously since day one. “I have a wife, a nine-month-old and a dad who’s ill—I don’t want this virus coming into our community.”

Mr. Trudeau said their job at the well-being checkpoint is largely one of education. “We help them to understand the dangers.”

Mr. Trudeau said traffic has definitely slowed since the community’s travel order with crews stopping those essential workers who must leave or enter the reserve for work, as well as those who are travelling from the community for medical appointments.

Mr. Trudeau said he is thankful for the Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service for their service at the checkpoints, too, as officers are also nearby to serve if needed.

Amanda Robinson

Registered Nurse

Amanda Robinson

Amanda Robinson has been a nurse for 16 years at Manitoulin Health Centre in Mindemoya, gaining employment there immediately following her graduation from the registered nursing program at Canadore College.

“I am very lucky to work with such an amazing group of people,” Ms. Robinson told The Expositor. “We really are like a family.”

Ms. Robinson shared that the fundamentals of being a nurse now, as opposed to a year ago, have not changed. “Patients are still in need of our hospital and our services, but some of our policies and procedures have changed. For example, we are to wear PPE for our entire shift and we are not allowing visitors in the hospital at this time. However, the care we provide is still the same.”

Ms. Robinson urges Islanders to keep vigilant as restrictions in our communities begin to lift.

“Wash your hands!” she urged. “Keep practicing social distancing and stay home, if you can. It’s vital to keep the strain off the health care system during this difficult time. I believe we all have a right to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Most importantly, be kind to one another. We are all in this together.”

Kathy Jewell

Pet Supply

Kathy Jewell

Kathy Jewell is the proprietor of Manitoulin’s only pet store, Kat’s Pet Supply in Mindemoya, which was deemed an essential service by the province at the onset of the state of emergency.

Ms. Jewell said it was important that she remain open as she sells many different pet foods to owners who have pets that have special dietary needs as well as food for small animals and birds, which can’t be found anywhere else Island-wide.

Ms. Jewell said she’s noticed that the bulk of her sales are what might be termed ‘necessary,’ meaning that dog collars and toys have not been flying off the shelves of late.

She’s also been able to employ more people since the pandemic as the store requires more people to run in its current state. “It’s a tougher, harder, more stressful way to do business.”

It didn’t ever cross Ms. Jewell’s mind that she should close her doors, admitting, though, that she was happy when the province said she must move to curbside pickup. “I was uncomfortable before.”

Ms. Jewell said she hears on a regular basis from her customers how thankful they are that she’s there for them during this time.

Marilee Harasym

Grocery Store Clerk

Marilee Harasym

Marilee Harasym works at the very front lines of the grocery store business, as a cashier at Little Current’s Orr’s Valu-Mart.

Ms. Harasym was upfront about why she continues to work in these unsettling times. “I need to make a living,” she said frankly. “It is really scary. If I didn’t have to work right now I wouldn’t. A lot of people follow the rules, but many don’t and that makes me nervous.”

Ms. Harasym said that a startling number of people do not follow the store’s rules or directives from public health, for instance bringing numerous family members in to shop or coming many times a week.

She urges people to maintain physical distancing in the store and get in and out as quickly as possible, respecting those that are waiting in line.

“I’m doing my distancing,” Ms. Harasym said. “The only time I see my family is little outside visits or when I see them shopping. I don’t want to bring the virus home to my family.”

Ms. Harasym had high praise for her boss, Andrew Orr who, she said, has done everything he can to protect his workers, “but some people don’t take it (the rules) seriously.”

Ms. Harasym said she thanked all those customers who do listen and who offer their thanks to her and her fellow employees.

Ward’s General Store

Community Store

Susan and Ross Ward

For smaller communities, businesses like Tehkummah’s Ward’s General Store are a necessity for neighbours and older residents especially.

“We’re just here to help people; we do the best we can to make sure they’re provided with the necessities so they don’t have to go somewhere else that might not be safe for them,” said Ward’s General Store co-owner Susan Ward.

She and husband Ross have turned Ward’s into a call-ahead pick-up service for better safety. But with items spread throughout the large building, filling orders can be exhausting.

“We find we’re doing a lot of walking and lifting because we have to go all over the building to find the right section. That’s the biggest challenge, to keep up with what people are wanting and go pick it up for them. The store isn’t small,” said Ms. Ward.

The Wards have been keeping the store well-stocked—except for a nationwide toilet paper shortage in the earlier days of the pandemic—and they say all the motivation they need comes from a sense of community responsibility.

“It’s just something you have to do, to cope with things no matter what,” said Ms. Ward. “We’re happy to do it.”

Chris Gauthier and Naushin Hooda

Pharmacies

Chris Gauthier and Naushin Hooda

The pressures for medication are as strong as ever but Island pharmacists Chris Gauthier and Naushin Hooda say knowing they’re helping people stay healthy gives them comfort on the front lines.

“It does sometimes get stressful and overwhelming,” says Ms. Hooda, “but when a patient shows their appreciation for us I keep feeling like I can go another day.”

Pharmacists have been navigating provincial rules that limit patients to a 30-day supply of medication, rather than the usual 90. This can cause frustration and increased dispensing fees, but the province will cover those extra fees for Ontario Drug Benefit users as of May 13.

Mr. Gauthier says pharmacy work can be stressful because patients with illness symptoms often consult pharmacists first, putting them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Pharmacies have been slow to receive PPE for their own workers, he adds.

“(What motivates me) is knowing we make a difference as front-line health care professionals, knowing we’re an integral part of the puzzle and knowing patients at this time are able to access health care and have their needs tended to,” he says.

Both agreed that their pharmacy colleagues across Manitoulin are working hard to maintain public health and adequate drug supplies and have proactively ordered to avoid running out of high-demand items such as inhalers. 

They requested that patients phone in their prescription refills to reduce the time patients need to spend in the store, as well as to not bring in empty bottles or expired medication.

Jenna Hunter

Financial Institution

Jenna Hunter

Jenna Hunter has been on the job behind the counter at the Northern Credit Union in Little Current since the beginning of the pandemic. She said that her job has really changed since then. 

“There is a lot more cleaning, and social distancing, of course,” she said. “For the most part people have been pretty receptive and understanding.”

As the pandemic has wound its course the stress has certainly been there, Ms. Hunter admitted, “but it was much harder at the beginning. It’s better now.” A lot of the strain came from the newness of the pandemic. “Not knowing, that’s been the worst of it,” she said. “The pandemic has been new to everyone and at the start it seemed that the virus was going to sweep across everyone like a tidal wave.”

The effectiveness of the restrictions has brought a great deal of relief, but “there is the next wave to think about,” she said. With the relaxation of some of the restrictions the province is holding its collective breath waiting for the second shoe to drop.

Green Acres

Restaurant

Barb Kearns

Barb Kearns has owned and operated Green Acres Restaurant and Tent and Trailer Park alongside husband Wade for almost 30 years. The couple will be celebrating this milestone in October.

Ms. Kearns said that it was important for Green Acres to continue to offer the public their famous home-cooked meals as a thank you to the people who have treated them so well over these past 30 years.

“We supply a service and feel that we need to be here for the people,” Ms. Kearns said.

While the Kearns will be welcoming some of their seasonal customers back to the park in the days to come, Ms. Kearns said they will not be opening the restaurant up for full service this summer, choosing to keep it limited to take out only for the safety of their staff.

Ms. Kearns said she doesn’t have too many worries about keeping COVID-19 at bay as she knows they are doing everything they can to maintain physical distancing and by keeping the storefront as clean as possible.

Ms. Kearns thanked everyone for their continued patronage during this difficult time and shared a simple message: “stay safe.”

Mel Jamieson

Hardware Store

Mel Jamieson

Mel Jamieson has worked as a cashier at RONA Little Current Building Supply for the past three years. The Expositor caught up with Ms. Jamieson during a busy Friday afternoon at the hardware store.

“I think it’s important to come to work because people need our services,” she said. “Even though it’s COVID-19 times, it’s still a necessity.”

“I had some concerns at the start,” Ms. Jamieson admitted, “but we’re doing our part in the store to keep people safe and keep our workspaces clean, allowing only 10 people in the store at a time and physical distancing.”

Ms. Jamieson urged customers to her store to please abide by the rules to help keep her and the other customers safe from the virus.

“Let’s keep doing what we’re doing and follow the rules,” she added.

Carrie Spry

Police

Constable Carrie Spry

Carrie Spry is a constable with United Chiefs and Councils of Manitoulin (UCCM) Anishnaabe Police Service and has worked as an officer for the last six years, spending five years before her UCCM tenure with the Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service.

“People generally have a lot of fears right now in a highly uncertain time,” Constable Spry said.

While some criminal activity has decreased, the officer explained that police have also been dealing with an increase in mental health-related calls, as well as domestic violence, which has increased dramatically over the same three-year period.

“We know it’s frustrating for people to be inside,” Constable Spry continued, noting that in the case of domestic issues, “there are so many more stressors, such as finances and the kids being home, likely on top of previous issues.”

The police are taking the same precautions as the rest of us when it comes to physical distancing, cleaning their workspaces and vehicles and using PPE.

“Our daily job is to come in contact with people every day that we don’t know where they’ve been,” Constable Spry added. “We’re trained to keep an eye out for certain behaviours or signs; this is just a different protocol.”

“We’re pretty used to risking our lives—we don’t really think about the virus any differently,” she said.

Constable Spry said she has the utmost respect for the store clerks who are risking their lives each and every day by offering an essential service.

Constable Spry had these parting words: “I hope communities can continue to support each other. Every community needs to respect other people’s decisions. We (UCCM Police) will continue to support the communities we serve.”

Becky Williams

Grocery Store Clerk

Becky Williams

Becky Williams is a busy mother of six who also works as head cashier at Andy’s Independent Food Town in Wiikwemkoong.

“It’s a necessity,” Ms. Williams said of why she comes to work each day. “I have children at home and I can’t stop working. Plus, people need groceries and that makes me feel a little bit valued.”

Like all of Manitoulin’s other grocery stores, Andy’s has specific rules that customers must adhere too, such as physical distancing and a 10 people at a time rule. Ms. Williams said the story has seen a big increase in traffic since the community’s travel order came into play and that it is not uncommon to see lineups out the door that will last up to 15 minutes.

“I feel bad for all the customers that are waiting,” Ms. Williams said. “That’s my one concern—that people need to respect that people are waiting.”

Ms. Williams said she isn’t overly fearful of coming to work thanks to her community’s travel order. “I don’t see many new faces here,” she said, “but if I think about it too much it gets too scary for me. I just keep telling myself ‘I’m okay here, I’m okay here’.”

Ms. Williams said she does feel for her counterparts at grocery stores across the Island, though, who are likely dealing with many unfamiliar faces.

“We are so essential,” she said of grocery store clerks. “If there were no grocery stores we would just be in a panic.”

Ms. Williams encouraged people to help out their neighbours, aunties and uncles and do the shopping for them if they aren’t able to save them from waiting in line and worrying about germs.

Ms. Williams reminds everyone to wash their hands and “don’t touch your face!”

Leah Migwans

Registered Nurse

Leah Migwans

For the past 23 years, Leah Migwans has worked as a community health nurse for the M’Chigeeng Health Centre.

Ms. Migwans said her job focus has shifted slightly in the past number of weeks to that of giver of information and helping to calms peoples’ fears.

“I’m trying to make sure people know what they can do to help keep themselves safe,” she said. There is a delicate balance between giving people the information, which is often frightening, to making sure their mental state is well too, the nurse noted.

The M’Chigeeng Health Centre now screens all patients before their appointment with a phone call and then again once they arrive to the clinic. Staff also wear PPE.

Ms. Migwans said she is not frightened of the virus and knows that there is an inherent risk of catching it along with anything else. “That’s just part of our job as nurses. If I was scared of catching things I wouldn’t do the job I do.”

“People need to be mindful of the guidelines coming out from public health and wash your hands, social distance and be mindful of your role in keeping our communities safe,” Ms. Migwans concluded.

Aaron Wright

Paramedic

Aaron Wright

It has been 25 years since paramedic Aaron Wright, a Gore Bay resident, first began his work in this profession, and even longer as a volunteer.

“I first started as a volunteer with the Gore Bay Volunteer Ambulance Service in 1993, with Marie Clarke as supervisor of the service at that time,” Mr. Wright explained. He then became a full-time paid staff paramedic in 2001 with the Rainbow North EMS, and in 2004 with the District Services Board under the Manitoulin-Sudbury EMS.

“I have always been a strong advocate for volunteering,” Mr. Wright said. “It is times like what we are all going through (the COVID-19 pandemic) that it is so important to help out your neighbour.”

“It’s all about community spirit and helping to protect your community and its residents and making sure everyone is safe. We all know each other in our community and the Island. It is important to keep in touch with those we know—even when social distancing is prevalent—our family, friends and neighours for our continued good mental health, as well as physical health,” said Mr. Wright.

While the role of a paramedic involves being on the front-lines of care, Mr. Wright said “I admire and respect all front-line workers, like those working in the grocery stores, drug stores, nurses, doctors, public health, personal support workers and staff in hospitals and nursing homes, firefighters, truck drivers, farmers and many more who are so important at all times, but especially in the current situation; they are doing everything they can to protect our residents and communities.” 

Margaret Bowerman

Cashier

Margaret Bowerman

A lot has changed at the AOK Gas Bar since cashier Margaret Bowerman first started working there, but the biggest changes have come about since the COVID-19 virus raised its ugly head. The gas bar store is now much more spacious than it used to be, having expanded to double in size and, of course, there is the ubiquitous plexiglass shield in place to protect customers and staff. 

“And we clean more, a lot more,” she laughed. 

Ms. Bowerman notes that there is a lot more traffic flow at the gas bar these days. “We sell a lot of cigarettes,” she said. A lot of the people coming through “seem more depressed these days.”

As for how she is doing, Ms. Bowerman said that she is doing “pretty okay,” but added that the pandemic has caused her a great deal of personal distress that will be familiar to many essential workers.

“I really miss seeing my grandchildren,” she said. “Because I work with the public, I can’t see them right now. I can tell you that really sucks.”

Mike Jon Peltier

Personal Support Worker

Mike Peltier

Things got very real for the staff at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home when one of the residents tested positive for the COVID-19 virus two weeks ago.

“We all felt very bad when we heard the news,” said Mike Jon Peltier, a personal support worker with 36 years’ experience. “We felt the weight of the entire community on our shoulders.”

Even though the staff were following the rules very closely, it still hit hard. “Even those of us who had to go for appointments kept ourselves isolated for 14 days afterward. We couldn’t understand how it could happen, we were all so careful.”

Mr. Peltier described the ever-increasing precautions in his job following the pandemic as “a real game-changer. We had to change so much of how we do things.” He noted how the staff at the home now have to prepare three meals a day in under an hour and a half. “We have it just over an hour now,” he said.

The staff and residents who were in contact with the 70-year-old female resident that tested positive have been secluded at the Rainbow Lodge since that result came in. Even though the next two tests came back negative, resulting in a “cleared” status for the resident, all still had to be isolated until yesterday (Tuesday, May 19).

“We are very stressed,” admitted Mr. Peltier, but added that the support from the home has been phenomenal. “We have great bosses here. I can’t say enough good about them. The staff here in isolation also would like to give a shout out to Paula Fields and her team, they immediately sent us two nurses to help out.”

Mr. Peltier expressed great admiration for the staff and volunteers at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home. “You know when you hear about staff running away from nursing homes in other places when there was an outbreak, here on Manitoulin they were all running in to help, seven, eight, nine volunteers were there for us,” he said. “Those are some pretty special people.”

David K. Siberry

Tehkummah First Response

David Siberry

Life as a first responder in Tehkummah has been busy as the crew adjusts to its newly approved protocols for pandemic-era patient care.

“It’s a small community here in Tehkummah. Everybody’s working to help everybody,” said David K. Siberry, who has spent years helping out on the township’s first response team.

Part of the new protocols involve growing the township’s supplies of PPE, which has been difficult in recent months. Mr. Siberry took up the challenge and has sourced plenty of the important items. His efforts were partly why the Tehkummah First Response was allowed to resume more operations.

“If you call enough people and check enough suppliers, you can find a bit here and there,” he said. “The fire department is in good shape now but it could always be better, so we continue to look.”

Staying on the front lines and ready to respond to crises is exciting, which keeps Mr. Siberry motivated to continue.

“You’re always learning new stuff, operating equipment and working together in teams,” he said. “All I can say is you have to do the best you can and we’ll get through this, we have to keep thinking that way.”