With the recent provincial government cabinet shuffle, First Nation leaders are calling on the Manitoba Government to continue working with First Nation leadership to improve the health and welfare of their peoples during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Around 49% of active COVID-19 cases in Manitoba are First Nations citizens, and as of last Tuesday, 105 First Nations citizens have died as a result of the pandemic.
Currently, there are 2,174 active COVID-19 cases among First Nations on-reserve and off-reserve in Manitoba with 16 in intensive care units.
“The new Provincial cabinet members must not only work closely with their Federal counterparts but must also work with First Nations to ensure that all First Nations in Manitoba are protected and immunized during the pandemic,” said the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Arlen Dumas in a news release.
“Leaders at all levels must work together in unity on an urgent basis to respond to this issue and my hope is that we will be a part of an improved working relationship with the province as a result of this shuffle,” said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Inc. Grand Chief Garrison Settee.
While First Nation citizens continue to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also impacted by poverty and chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
“Communication from the Province of Manitoba with First Nations has been sporadic and absolutely needs to improve,” said Settee.
“Although the pandemic has required a significant amount of energy and attention from First Nations leaders, there are many issues we need to address with the Government of Manitoba on an urgent basis. I continue to urge leaders within the provincial government to focus on improving the relationships and communicating clearly and regularly with First Nations leadership.”
On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister announced that Heather Stefanson has replaced Cameron Friesen as the Minister of Health and Seniors Care.
The former Families Minister is now responsible for leading efforts on the COVID-19 vaccination as well as other health supports and services as authorized under section 91 of the Canadian Constitution Act.
“I thank Minister Friesen for his efforts during his time as Health Minister. The AMC and the First Nations Pandemic Response Team look forward to working with the new Health Minister,” said Dumas.
The Premier also announced Manitoba's first Black cabinet minister, Audrey Gordon, who will now lead the new Department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery.
“This is a historic accomplishment and it is encouraging to have a Minister who has background experience working within health systems to tackle the significant issues for mental wellness and recovery,” said Settee.
“There is an urgent need to focus on mental wellness as the pandemic continues. It is also positive to see more women taking on leadership roles within the provincial government,” he added.
In a Facebook post, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization welcomed Gordon’s new role and the increasing diversity in the provincial cabinet as well as noted that they will continue to advocate for more First Nations representation in the provincial cabinets and governments.
MKO has also stated that as the first inhabitants of Manitoba, they look forward to a day when they can see more First Nations people being appointed as ministers in the provincial government.
Nicole Wong is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Nicole Wong, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun