The Southern Chiefs Organization (SCO) wants to know who will be held accountable should First Nations students bring COVID-19 from provincial schools home to their reserves.
As of Sept. 1, the total number of lab-confirmed positive and probable positive First Nations cases in Manitoba remained at 22, with none of them on-reserve.
"The First Nations have been very effective at keeping the numbers down in our communities," SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said. "The leadership has done very well."
Some First Nations have their own schools on-reserve and have developed very stringent plans to ensure their communities continue to see zero COVID-19 cases. For the 11 First Nations with schools administered by the Manitoba First Nations School System, individual plans are being worked out with each community, including for students in higher grades who would normally attend provincial schools.
When asked if First Nations were consulted on back-to-school plans Daniels said there have been many empty promises from the province, and a great deal of strain on several different files.
"This one is very important to us because, obviously, it involves our children," Daniels told The Brandon Sun.
In a news release, Daniels stated that as First Nations students headed back to provincial schools this week, they were met with confusion, last-minute updates, changing plans, and very little support from the province of Manitoba.
"The province has yet to take responsibility for the safety of our students, and they are putting undue stress on already overburdened families," he said.
First Nation families already deal with systemic racism and economic apartheid that has resulted in an 11-year gap in health outcomes, according to the release. They are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, as are extended family members, including elders, and many communities have imposed strict lockdown and quarantine measures to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.
"Sending their children into communities with higher cases of coronavirus and into schools developing plans in less than a week is causing great concern among many First Nation parents and caregivers," Daniels said.
"Our communities and our families have taken strong measures to prevent outbreaks and now the province is forcing us to choose between our children‘s education and risking their potential exposure to the coronavirus."
Further, Daniels said the province has dumped responsibility on school divisions, and that they are carrying the burden of responsibility.
"I think that that’s the most important point for Pallister’s government, and (Minister of Education) Kelvin Goertzen. They have to realize that if any of our children start getting sick and, God forbid, any lives are lost there’s going to have to be some accountability there," he said.
"I don’t think they should be offloading it to the school division. I think that they should have invested in a system that would delay some of the interactions at the school level until such time that we can have a very clearly thought-out and robust strategy."
He said the province has had since March to prepare for this moment but, instead, put out an information package less than a week before the start of school. The SCO stated the timing of the materials was inadequate.
"Adequately preparing for students to go back-to-school during a pandemic takes significant time, planning, coordination, and funding," Daniels said.
"The provincial government should be taking any and all measures that they can to ensure the health and safety of all students across the province. Many questions remain for First Nation parents and caregivers who want to keep their children safe while still allowing them to receive their necessary education."
Asked if kids start getting sick, would the SCO be holding the government and Manitoba Education responsible, Daniels said, "They’re the ones who are making the recommendations. They’re the ones laying out the policy."
» email@example.com, with files from Colin Slark
» 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.