Manitoba MP wants military called out for COVID in northern First Nations communities

·4 min read

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to spike in First Nations communities, one northern Manitoba MP is now calling on the federal government to step in and offer support, and for the military to be called in if necessary.

Last week it was reported that at least 10 First Nations communities in Northern Manitoba were dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks, and that some of those communities were putting lockdown measures in place to help slow the spread of the virus.

In a press release Friday, Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill Keewatinook-Aski, said that many of those communities now need extra support if they are going to be able to slow the spread of the virus, and deal with the likelihood of an increasing amount of cases numbers, illnesses and hospitalizations.

Ashton confirmed she has reached out to the federal Minister of Indigenous Services and the Minister of National Defence to call for federal support.

"It has been made abundantly clear that First Nations are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” Ashton said. “Our region has gone above and beyond to stay safe but more people are getting sick, and we need the federal government to respond to the current urgent needs of communities.

“Remote and isolated communities require particular support. This includes bringing the military back to ensure communities are able to function, and limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Lives are on the line."

In the release, Ashton also said she does not believe that many northern First Nations communities currently have the resources or the health care services to deal with growing COVID case counts, or to deal with the growing amount of health-care and frontline workers across Manitoba who have been calling in sick in recent days and weeks.

“First Nations and northern communities are taking drastic measures including implementing lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Ashton said. “However, the lack of pre-existing capacity and the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant mean that frontline workers providing essential services are also getting sick, or are off self-isolating.

“Help is needed to ensure that community members are able to self-isolate and communities are able to maintain lockdowns in order to limit the spread.”

But while Ashton said she was seeking support for First Nations communities, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) called into question Ashton’s motives in reaching out to the federal government.

“This letter and comments by Niki Ashton to the media is for political optics,” AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a Monday press release.

“Ms. Ashton did not reach out to First Nation leadership before sensationalizing the issue of hospital closures and need for emergency staffing. She did not make calls to leadership asking what supports they require that would enable them to address the crisis with community-based solutions.”

The Winnipeg Sun reached out to Ashton on Monday for further comment, but she was unavailable for a phone interview as she was travelling.

But in an email, Ashton said she was only calling on the federal government because she wants to keep northern communities safe, and not for any political reasons.

"I am not sure what Arlen Dumas’ personal or political agenda is - but my agenda is to make sure that northern and Indigenous communities get the supports they need during this public health emergency,” Ashton said in the email.

“This includes right up to calling in the military. I would remind people that the military is on the ground helping in Bearskin Lake. They have worked with First Nations on the ground in our region throughout the pandemic."

Ashton also responded to Dumas’ comments claiming that she has not been communicating with First Nations communities in the north.

“I have been in touch on a constant basis with First Nations people and leaders doing everything they can as cases surge again. I have seen throughout other emergencies from forest fires, to H1N1 to now COVID-19 that we cannot wait until it’s too late,” Ashton said.

“I make no apologies for fighting for the resources that northern and Indigenous communities need to fight this pandemic and save lives.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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