As Manitoba skids into the coronavirus pandemic’s second wave, a First Nations organization and the Manitoba Metis Federation have each put out communications intended to draw attention to efforts needed for Indigenous Peoples.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization, with Grand Chief Jerry Daniels leading, made "an urgent appeal to all orders of government to free up critically needed funds and to drastically step up their efforts to keep First Nation citizens and all Manitobans safe from COVID-19."
"Let me be very clear, our lives are literally on the line," Daniels stated in a news release.
"It is obvious at the provincial level that the pandemic response is beyond inadequate and now our critical care resources are on the verge of collapse."
The First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba’s latest numbers indicate that as of October 31 there were 328 on-reserve cases of COVID-19. Off-reserve cases totalled 449. There are 573 active cases, with three deaths reported.
The organization, which represents 34 southern Manitoba First Nations, stated it was only 100 days ago that the province had one of the best case counts per capita in the country.
"Now, the province’s case count per capita is on par with some regions in the U.S., the country with the world’s highest COVID-19 case numbers. From this past Friday to Sunday alone, the province saw a staggering increase of 1,141 cases. Add to all of that, frustration caused by long lineups for COVID-19 testing along with a significant backlog in test results and contact tracing," the organization stated.
Manitoba’s test positivity rate among First Nations is 11 per cent now, while the provincial average is 8.6 per cent, according to the secretariat.
But for Métis, the story is different. The Manitoba Metis Federation is aware of only one case of COVID-19 among its people. And David Chartrand, president of the federation. said that’s because the province is not communicating. He said there is no data system available to show illness or deaths among Métis.
"So because there’s no relationship with the province, it was word of mouth directly to us by one of our citizens … We’re supporting her," Chartrand said about the one case the federation is aware of.
"She was very scared. We’ve got our team working on that."
The COVID-positive woman and Chartrand have been communicating by text.
"She was worried about her grandson. That’s her baby of all babies. She doesn’t know how she got it. But knock on wood — we have a robust plan."
Because the province is failing, Chartrand said, the federation is working on hiring its own testing company. He said if he were Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, he would have reacted throughout the summer.
"I would have hired more nurses. I would have put up more systems. No matter the deficit. I’d be a premier taking care of the people," he said.
The federation has restarted its food hamper system and is offering help to businesses with a $5.5-million fund. Eligible businesses will be able to receive a non-repayable grant of $10,000 so long as they promise to stay open after code red restrictions are over.
Daniels made a similar statement.
"If the province’s system is on the verge of collapse, imagine what that could mean for First Nations health care resources," he said.
"Thanks to centuries of colonization, we have been dealing with an infrastructure backlog for generations. Add to that the challenges of a global pandemic and you have a recipe for disaster."
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization wants improved transparency, action and accountability from the province. And it wants the feds to fast track the release of $200 million they recently announced to help support First Nations to deal with the pandemic.
"That money will be immediately used to help build critical infrastructure, including badly needed isolation units as well as upgrades for health, social, and educational facilities," the organization stated.
"While we are pleased with the additional funds announced by the federal government last week, we need to be able to access resources immediately to have a real chance at preventing the further spread of COVID-19 and related deaths," Daniels stated.
"The situation is dire, and so we are demanding better for the people we serve."
The Manitoba Metis Federation has something many First Nations do not: own-source revenue to complement federal funds. It has, and continues to, create programs to see its people through, including forming partnerships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations and businesses.
Chartrand has insisted, since March – when the pandemic first made itself felt in the province – that he wants to work with everyone.
Chartrand said Pallister had all the opportunity in the world to take care of people when the province was in a positive state.
"But now we cannot sit by as a government – and the federal government has stretched itself so far out – we need to do our own part," Chartrand said.
"We are in the biggest crisis of our history. By next year, I hope we’re not going to be in this situation, business will go back to normal … and these will say they had a government they could count on. That’s our philosophy here."
Chartrand also said the federation is minimizing red tape.
"If I have 700 businesses coming to me and I need more money, I’ll put another million, or another five if I have to," he said.
"If businesses go down, they will never come back."
In its news release, The Southern Chiefs’ Organization noted the province announced will reactivate its incident command structure, to help "provide clear direction and ensure co-ordinated efforts are put in place to address the situation."
This is another example of how the Manitoba government is failing to keep First Nations and all Manitobans safe. The command structure was deactivated months ago, and it has taken the province until now to reactivate it, despite the alarming increases in cases which began many weeks ago, the organization stated.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.