Manitoba rejects request to shut down highway to the north to combat COVID-19

Some First Nations and advocacy groups in northern Manitoba are calling on the provincial government to shut down highways in the north for all non-essential travel.

Misipawistik Cree Nation (MCN) and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an advocacy group representing northern First Nations in the province, are requesting the province establish checkpoints on Highway 6, one of the major highways leading to the north.

“In the north we have less ability to respond when people start getting sick and when that happens we know that we can’t rely on being able to send people out to hospitals that are in big cities,” Misipawistik Councillor Heidi Cook told APTN News.

“If you limit the non-essential traffic then you’re protecting those regions that are less able to respond when something happens.”

The request follows reports of the first case of COVID-19 reaching the northern part of the province this week.

The case was in the small city of Flin Flon, which is located about 765 kilometres north of Winnipeg near the Manitoba border with Saskatchewan.

Health officials have determined it was linked to travel.

The highway runs through Misipawistik, and outsiders often use community services like the grocery store and gas station.

While many First Nations have closed their borders for all non-essential travel, being on a major route like Hwy 6 prevents MCN from doing that as well.

“We don’t have that luxury because we’re on a major highway into the north. This is the lifeline to the north. We don’t want to shut the highway down because all the essential goods that have to go up there come through here, but we want to protect our community just as much as those other ones do,” said Cook.

Instead, leadership set up their own checkpoint along the highway Wednesday morning. They will document any members leaving the community. Anyone coming back in will have to self-isolate for 14 days.

The province is currently operating five border checkpoints, one at the Ontario border and four along the Saskatchewan border.

During a press conference Wednesday morning, Premier Brian Pallister said the creation of additional checkpoints is, “not on the table.”

“I see various First Nations communities taking measures to protect their people. I respect the right to do that, but at this point and time no additional blockades [will be set up] internally within Manitoba,” said Pallister.

“The reinforcement of the messaging and the reinforcement of the check points on our borders with Saskatchewan, North Dakota and with Ontario are very in emphasis at this point and time.”

Cook calls the response, “disappointing.”

“It’s something we think the province could do to help out,” she said. “He’s just telling us we’re on our own and I kind of knew that already.”

MKO is also requesting the province support checkpoints on Highway 10, which runs north to Flin Flon.

In addition to this MKO is requesting provincial and federal support in the form of RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces to help with the check stops communities have already implemented.

Reporter / Winnipeg

Brittany joined the APTN news team in October 2016. She is Ojibway and a member of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba. Before coming to APTN, she graduated with a joint degree in communications from the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.