MONTREAL -- When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Quebec, the Mohawk community of Kahnawake decided to close to outsiders.

“It was self-preservation,” said Kyle Zachary, a police officer with the Kahnawake peacekeepers. “All stores within the territory were closed, the (COVID-19) taskforce was created… A lot of our residents are elderly people; immunocompromised people. These measures were put in place to protect our most vulnerable residents.”

The decision to close was sealed when the community saw non-residents flocking to the area in search of cigarettes. 

“You could tell they were looking for cigarettes because they were driving along the road and stopping in front of every cigarette store,” Zachary said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, 325 fines were issued to non-residents who ventured into the community despite there being clear signs at all entrances asking them to keep out, Zachary said. 

“Each one of those fines ranges around $1,500,” he added, noting that community members often placed calls to the peacekeepers to report non-residents. At the height of the pandemic, they were receiving around 20 calls per day. 

“People were coming into the village, many of them looking to purchase cigarettes at all hours of the day and into the evening, and people were uncomfortable with that,” said Joe Delaronde,  a political presse attache with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. 

On June 1, the community reopened to the public, but with a curfew in place. Visitors can drop by during the day – provided that they respect public health measures – but they must head home no later than 10 p.m. 

“Nobody really (has) any business to be around after that,” Delaronde said. 

Delaronde says the measures the community has taken since the pandemic began have worked. 

“We’re doing pretty well, we’ve had no hospitalizations,” he said. “We’ve had no deaths – we’ve had some cases but most of them were younger people I would think… and they did all the things they were supposed to do.”

In Kahnawake, there’s more than just lives at stake when it comes to COVID-19 – the residents who are most at-risk are the elders, who know the intricacies of the Mohawk language better than anyone. If the community were to lose them, “it would be more than devastating because they hold onto that language for us,” Delaronde said.

“That’s one of the reasons why people here have taken it so very seriously and people have abided and respected the directives,” Delaronde added. “There’s no nastiness in any of this, it’s just a matter of safety.”