Manitoba premier wants extra doses of vaccine if Ottawa reserves portion for First Nations

The federal government’s proposed plan to reserve a portion of COVID-19 vaccine for First Nations would leave Manitoba with the fewest doses for the rest of the population, Premier Brian Pallister said.

Ottawa has proposed doling out COVID-19 vaccine to the provinces based on population, and Manitoba has the highest proportion of Indigenous people, Pallister said at a news conference Thursday.

“There would be the least amount available in Manitoba after the federal government holds back the portion” for the province’s Indigenous population, he said. 

“This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly.”

Pallister said the health and welfare of Indigenous people is the principal responsibility of the federal government and wants Ottawa to provide an additional amount of vaccines for Manitoba First Nations communities.

“They have to step up and protect our Indigenous communities first … but not punish everyone else who lives in the same jurisdiction as Indigenous folks by short-changing them on their share of vaccines,” he said.

He called on the federal government to come up with a nationally co-ordinated plan, with input from the provinces.

Premier to meet with Indigenous leaders

The premier said he plans to meet with Indigenous leaders next week and will seek their input.

“This is unfair, and this is not what our Indigenous leaders want, and I’ll be meeting with them next week to discuss this important issue,” he said.

Arlen Dumas, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, called Pallister’s comments “disrespectful” and “unnecessary.”

“It’s unfortunate that the premier chooses to make this an issue that could potentially cause division and be used as a political football, jurisdictional football, when it doesn’t need to be,” Dumas said.

First Nations pandemic response teams have been working with public health officials to identify vulnerable populations and determine the best way to roll out the vaccine once it’s available, he said.

“It’s not an issue of north or south, or off-reserve or on-reserve. The pandemic does not discriminate, it’s not racist, and it’s impacting people all over the place.”

This is the second time this week Pallister has criticized the federal government’s plan to prioritize First Nations communities in the distribution of the vaccine. On Tuesday, he said giving the vaccine to remote northern communities first could lead to an influx of people from the south seeking to get early access, potentially bringing the virus with them.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has proposed four priority groups to receive the first doses: residents and staff of long-term care facilities, people over the age of 80, front-line health care workers and First Nations.

Federal officials said Ottawa is planning for vaccines to arrive in Canada in the first three months of 2021.

WATCH | First Nations hit hard by COVID-19:

Dr. Marcia Anderson, who leads Manitoba’s COVID-19 rapid response teams, discusses the 213 new cases of COVID-19 among Manitoba First Nations since Nov. 13. One-fifth of the province’s active cases are on First Nations.  7:21

Later during Thursday’s news conference, Pallister attempted to head off criticism of his comments.

“I want to put this to bed right now, because I can understand that any time I use the word ‘Indigenous,’ then someone thinks that that’s a racist comment,” he said.

“It’s not anything but a concern that our Indigenous and non-Indigenous population are treated fairly and that they get access to a vaccine in an intelligent, strategic way as quickly as possible.

Speaking to reporters after Pallister’s briefing, Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the premier of trying to “divide” Manitobans and said his comments ignore the point of a vaccination campaign, which is to create herd immunity. 

“When my neighbour gets a vaccine, I shouldn’t be jealous that my neighbour got a vaccine before I did. I should be happy that my neighbour did their part to slow down community spread,” Kinew said. 

‘First Nations are Manitobans’

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Pallister is playing a “dangerous game by suggesting that there are going to be problems with vaccine rollout.” 

The history of past pandemics in Manitoba has shown that First Nations communities are vulnerable because of long-standing issues, such as inadequate housing and lack of access to medical care, Lamont said.

“The fact is, First Nations are Manitobans like the rest of us,” he said.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin declined to directly address Pallister’s comments about First Nations at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

He said Manitoba would be receiving relatively few quantities of the vaccine during the early stages of the rollout and will have to make choices about who gets it first.

“We have to find those priority groups, and, of course, there will be people who feel the priority groups should be different,” Roussin said.

A military medical team was deployed to Opaskwayak Cree Nation on Nov. 21 to assist staff in caring for many people in the Manitoba First Nation community who have the virus. (Submitted by Department of National Defence)

Manitoba has secured all necessary supplies to administer two doses of the vaccine to every resident, including a sufficient supply of needles, syringes and personal protective equipment for staff administering vaccinations, Pallister said.

The first freezer able to safely store one of the COVID-19 vaccines at extremely low temperatures has been delivered and installed, with another four on the way, he said. Together they can hold about one million doses of vaccine.

The province has purchased 20 portable ultra-cold freezers so that as the vaccine supply expands in the coming months it can be stored and be widely available at numerous sites.

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