Northern Saskatchewan First Nations leaders were “disappointed” and “offended” by remarks made by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe on Tuesday that were widely perceived as having singled out northern First Nations for low COVID-19 vaccination rates.
At issue are comments made by the premier when he took post-election jabs at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic in northern Saskatchewan during a press conference in Regina.
Trudeau had highlighted low vaccination rates in Saskatchewan and Alberta while campaigning for re-election in B.C. Moe countered that Trudeau had a “role to play” in the situation.
Moe’s ‘message of exclusion’ to northerners
Moe said the province went out of its way to try and boost vaccine uptake in northern and Indigenous communities — that the premier said are a federal responsibility.
“We have went so far out of our provincial jurisdiction — in a number of northern communities — providing door-to-door opportunities to get vaccinated,” Moe said.
“This ultimately is an area where we saw the Prime Minister raise the vaccination rate in Saskatchewan as being far too low.”
Moe said the province has “worked hard, throughout this pandemic” to address low vaccination rates in northern and Indigenous communities.
The premier pointed to 14 per cent of vaccines received by Saskatchewan in the early stages of the pandemic being allotted to Indigenous Services Canada.
Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte countered that while the north was initially vulnerable — the province was not perceived to have distributed the vaccine fairly.
Hardlotte said at the outset of the pandemic “everyone was in agreement” for a strategy of masking, social distancing, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) — but the province wasn’t cooperative.
“The political leadership of the north had to lobby for a proper allotment of vaccines. The message was not one of inclusion, rather it was exclusion,” Hardlotte said.
“We are calling upon the premier to include us in a united provincial strategy. We wish to work with this government to arrive at a point of safety and comfort for all people, especially those in northern Saskatchewan.”
Frontline workers ‘deserve more credit’
Moe said Trudeau left Saskatchewan high and dry by calling an election, which put the federal government on temporary hold so that ministers were not available to work with the provinces.
“Our far north and Indigenous communities are running at a vaccination rate lower than 50 per cent — some as low as 23 per cent,” Moe said.
“This is an area where we have some of the highest COVID transmissions in the province and this is an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction.”
The Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) and Athabasca Health Authority (AHA), which cover COVID-19 response in the north alongside the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), are funded by both the federal and provincial governments.
AHA CEO Allan Adam called on the premier to spare some praise for northern healthcare workers.
“The premier needs to focus his attention on other real matters instead of attempting to be divisive,” Adam said.
“The frontline workers who are putting in long hours, being with the sick who are struggling for their lives need to be told by Premier Scott Moe that they are doing a great job.”
NITHA Executive Director Tara Campbell also said frontline workers “deserve more credit” in their role in fighting COVID-19.
“They are working tirelessly to get vaccines into arms, using varied methods, such as door to door vaccination, pop up clinics in gathering places such as grocery stores and even conducting drive thru vaccination sites,” Campbell said.
“These methods have been successful to ensure availability and accessibility of vaccines.”
Province ‘ignored’ proposed solutions
Meadow Lake Tribal Council Tribal Chief Richard Ben called for cooperation and “strong leadership” instead of divisiveness.
“The First Nations have provided practical solutions that work for our communities; however, all recommendations were ignored,” Ben said.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic that has taken many lives, put a big strain on the health system, and has had an effect on mental health that has probably played a role on the many suicides.”
Moe was also criticized by Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller — who called Moe’s remarks “inaccurate” in response to a clip from the conference posted by the premier on Twitter Thursday.
“The Premier’s misunderstanding of his own healthcare system and the role it plays together with the Athabasca Health Authority and Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority is alarming and unproductive,” Miller Tweeted.
“Stating that all this work is “exclusive” federal jurisdiction is not only inaccurate but undermines the spirit of Indigenous self-determination that has guided our cooperative approach and must continue in order to overcome this current wave.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) also took to the social media platform in response to Moe’s remarks.
“There are many communities and regions, not just First Nations communities that have a low vaccination rate,” the FSIN Tweeted.
“We continue to urge everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. We all must work together to end this pandemic for every community”
For his part, Moe said on Tuesday that he “suspects” the federal government has mishandled its approach to the pandemic in northern and Indigenous communities across Canada.
Moe said in order to achieve that goal Saskatchewan needs the “full support of the federal government” to bring up low vaccination rates throughout the far north and in Indigenous communities.
“I suspect the federal government has been aware of this throughout this pandemic — throughout their decision to call an election while we as Canadians are still managing our way through this pandemic.”