'Two-tiered health:' Manitoba premier wants PM to clear up rules on powwows

WINNIPEG — Manitoba's premier has added his voice to provincial leaders calling on Ottawa to clear up mixed messages about Indigenous ceremonies, after a chief said his First Nation would be holding its annual powwow even if public-health orders continue to limit the size of gatherings.

"Now is not the time to begin to disrespect public health orders that have kept Manitobans safe — all Manitobans," Brian Pallister.

Pallister said he would be bringing up the issue on a call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later Thursday. 

"We are not people who believe in two-tiered health," the premier added. 

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe criticized the federal government's approach earlier this month after RCMP were dispatched to a sun-dance ceremony. Moe said no one is exempt from provincial public health orders because no one is exempt from COVID-19.

Thousands of people usually travel across the country to dance and reconnect during the powwow season. This year, most traditional gatherings have been cancelled or delayed over concerns about the novel coronavirus or due to provincial restrictions on how many people can gather.

Chief Cornell McLean said that after careful consideration Lake Manitoba First Nation decided to go ahead with the community's traditional powwow next month.

"It is our culture," McLean said.

Two months ago, Lake Manitoba was one of the first reserves in the province to restrict travel in and out of the community, about 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Many other First Nations followed. McLean said there have been no cases of COVID-19 in the region.

He said it has been difficult for many residents as they deal with the stress of isolation, financial strain and concern over their families. Some have turned to alcohol or drugs, he said.

He believes the powwow that is being organized will bring healing.

"It's important because we are trying to … start that healing process for our members."

There have been 294 cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba. However, the number of infections has stagnated over the last few weeks. The government reported two new cases on Thursday; 14 are active.

McLean and his council watched as the provincial government began to loosen restrictions this month. He said they decided to move forward with the powwow when the limit on outdoor gatherings was increased to 50 people.

"We will make sure that social distancing is being followed," said the chief, who added that anyone not feeling well should not attend the event running June 19-21.

"We won't have people standing arm in arm, that's for sure, but we will find a way to make it work for our community."

The powwow is still being planned and McLean did not indicate how many people are expected to take part. Outside of community members, people from four nearby First Nations are likely to come, he said.

Organizers will be watching what happens with provincial public- health orders and will decide if there needs to be a limit on attendance, but there won't be less than 100 people, McLean said.

The First Nation may get criticized for holding the powwow, but McLean noted the federal government has made it clear that Indigenous ceremonies won't be stopped during the pandemic.

"Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said earlier this month.

Any decision to cancel or postpone cultural practices remains up to community leadership, Indigenous Services spokesperson Martine Stevens said in an email. First Nations leaders and ceremonial organizers are given information on COVID-19 public health measures.

Manitoba Health said Indigenous ceremonies need to follow current public health recommendations. The department said it will work with First Nations to provide public health guidance.

Wab Kinew, Manitoba's NDP Opposition leader, said he believes the chief knows what is best for the community. He denounced Pallister's comments and said the only two-tiered health care that exists on reserves is the underfunding of health services for First Nations people.

"It's so unfortunate that we have a premier that would want to make inflammatory statements because it's counterproductive to the collaboration that would have all parties work together to stamp out COVID-19."

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said governments and First Nations need to be flexible to ensure traditions are maintained while keeping people safe.

"Everyone is super sensitive to the reality of what we are dealing with in the time of this pandemic," he said.

Dumas said the assembly is in constant contact with the province's chief public health officer and the federal government. First Nations are being advised to remain vigilant and look out for one another.

Manitoba chiefs acted quickly to keep communities safe when it was clear COVID-19 was spreading, Dumas said. They continue to do what's best for their communities now that Manitoba is taking steps to reopen,he added.

"We aren't going to be able to isolate ourselves forever, so how do we start living with this thing?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2020

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press