YEAR IN REVIEW: Pain of residential schools, communities divided by COVID among top 2021 stories

·4 min read

The year 2021 saw the true pain and suffering of residential school survivors brought to light, communities divided by health orders and vaccination status, abuse magnified by the pandemic, and emergency service workers plead with the province for more supports to do their jobs.

As we near the end of another year, here are five notable stories that made headlines over the last 12 months in Manitoba.

The discovery of 215 unmarked graves near a former residential school in B.C. back in May shook the country. Soon hundreds of similar grim discoveries were made in other parts of the country bringing far more light to the horrors of the residential school system, and its decades-long attempt to eradicate Indigenous culture in Canada.

The discoveries led to Indigenous leaders in Manitoba asking back in June that the federal government begin referring to what happened in residential schools as genocide, stating that reconciliation could not happen unless the feds addressed the residential school system for what it was.

“This was genocide, this is clear under international law it was an act of genocide,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee said during a June 9 media conference. “There can be no reconciling without truth, we have to admit it and address it for what it is.”

The pandemic has brought illness, death and grief over the last 21 months, but it has also led to strains and fractures forming in families and communities in Manitoba over health orders, and over who and who is not vaccinated.

On Nov.14, Morden Mayor Brandon Burley lashed out against COVID-19 misinformation while speaking to the Winnipeg Sun that he said is “costing lives.” The mayor also said that even some of his own family and longtime friends are not currently speaking to him because of disagreements over health orders and vaccination status. “There are friends I have met up with for drinks for years and I doubt we will ever get together again, and it’s not that I am not willing, but I am just convinced it’s not going to happen because the divide has just become too strong.”

Families and communities have also been at odds in nearby Winkler where vaccination rates remain low, and large rallies earlier this year saw residents protest public health orders.

Disagreements over health mandates even involved children and brought angry parents to the steps of a southern Manitoba school division last summer. In late August, just days before the school year was set to begin, a rally on the grounds of the Hanover School Division (HSD) board office in Steinbach saw residents, parents and even children protest the mandating of masks in Manitoba schools.

Some public speakers at the rally even went so far as to publicly suggest that school children not follow mask mandates when returning to school. Mask mandates have been in place in Manitoba schools since students returned to classes in September.

Some rural Manitoba paramedics and the union that represents them sounded the alarm this fall about current working conditions, and claimed that rural emergency medical service (EMS) departments in the province are reaching breaking points due to staff shortages, employee burnout, unsustainable workloads, and a lack of support.

A paramedic, who works in the Southern Health region in southeastern Manitoba, and who asked not to be named for fear or repercussions, told the Winnipeg Sun on Sept. 28 that in the region there have been ongoing and severe staff shortages that have been compounded by employee burnout and employees consistently calling in sick to work. “It’s not uncommon in our region to be down 2-3 trucks a day,” the paramedic said in an email sent to the Winnipeg Sun.

In September, Bob Moroz, the president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (MAHCP) told the Winnipeg Sun that all the claims made by the paramedic line up with what their union has been hearing. “It absolutely is what we are hearing,” Moroz said. “And it is getting worse, not only are we seeing our rural paramedics burning out and having to take time as described, but we are in a situation where government is ignoring their concerns and ignoring our concerns on their behalf.”

Advocates who work with women fleeing abuse and violence in Manitoba say the pandemic has also led to a “shadow pandemic” of increasing and more extreme incidents of domestic assault and violence against women in the province. “The situations we have seen have been far more complex, far more extreme, and far more high-risk, and the stories have been more difficult to hear,” Ang Braun, the executive director of Genesis House women’s shelter in Winkler told the Winnipeg Sun on June 16. “Many of the calls and the referrals we are getting are literally people scared of harm to themselves, and with a belief that if they don’t get out they might not survive.”

National statistics have shown that across Canada incidents of domestic abuse have been on the rise since the pandemic began.

— 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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