Recent comments made by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister have some First Nations chiefs and organizations accusing the leader of fear mongering over the dispersal of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“He’s making it sound as if First Nations are presenting an illegitimate case and trying to take away from some of the other vulnerable sectors of our society,” said Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels adding that the premier is creating divisions in the province.
Earlier this week Pallister, unprompted, suggested people living off-reserve may travel north if their communities are part of the initial roll out of a vaccine for the virus.
“If a vaccine is made available on northern reserves before it’s available in southern Manitoba, we’re going to have an outpouring, a migration of folks, naturally who want to get vaccinated, up to northern communities maybe taking COVID with them,” he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
It’s not clear why Pallister warned of a First Nation exodus to the north. No schedule for a rollout of the vaccine has been announced by the federal government.
But Pallister demanded more details from Ottawa.
The premier acknowledged vulnerable people should be first in line but said the federal government needs to set out some criteria.
“How do you determine vulnerability? Should it be done on the basis of ethnicity? Should it be done on the basis of race in some way? These questions have to be addressed,” said Pallister.
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First Nations people in the province have accounted for disproportionate numbers of the virus.
“Obviously we care about our elders whether they’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous…we’re just trying to emphasize the fact that First Nations are also very vulnerable,” Daniels said.
As of Tuesday First Nations people made up 25 per cent of the current hospitalizations and 39 per cent of the ICU patients in Manitoba due to COVID-19.
There have been a total of 43 deaths related to the virus since the pandemic started including a young boy under the age of 10 who has been the youngest death to date in the province.
The median age of death for First Nations people due to the virus is 66 while for the overall population in the province it is 83.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is also taking issue with Pallister’s comments.
“If the Premier is truly interested and concerned about vaccine rollouts, especially concerning First Nations, I encourage him to properly reach out prior to informing us via media questions,” Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a statement.
“It is unfortunate when people make uninformed statements and I move to caution the Premier to consult his technical team and to consult the AMC and by extension, the First Nations Chiefs, prior to making any statement that might cause undue confusion or concern.”
Dumas added there is no indication vaccines will be distributed to the north first.
It will still be months before a vaccine rolls out across Canada, and while distribution will fall on provinces and territories the federal government suggested frontline workers and marginalized groups will likely be the first groups to get them.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recognized Pallister’s concerns during a briefing Wednesday morning.
“As we are currently working on a cascade of priorities clearly Indigenous people need to be at the top of that, and I need all the premiers…to acknowledge that.”
“I think it will guide our policy as we roll out the vaccine to priority groups not only in areas where we talk about reserves where there’s a huge federal role but as we talk about some of the work that need to be done in urban areas.”
There are 587 active cases on reserve and 1,171 active cases off reserve in Manitoba.