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'Two-tiered health:' Manitoba premier wants PM to clear up rules on powwows

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks during a provincial COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Monday, March 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG – Manitoba’s premier is calling on Ottawa to clear up mixed messages about Indigenous ceremonies after a First Nation chief said his community would be holding its annual powwow next month even if provincial public-health orders continue to limit the size of gatherings.

“Now is not the time to begin to disrespect public health orders that have kept Manitobans safe – all Manitobans,” said Brian Pallister.

Pallister said he would be bringing up the issue on a call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later Thursday.

“We are not people who believe in two-tiered health,” the premier added.

Thousands of people usually travel across the country to dance and reconnect during the powwow season. This year, most traditional gatherings have been cancelled or delayed over concerns about the novel coronavirus or due to restrictions on how many people can gather.

Chief Cornell McLean said that after careful consideration Lake Manitoba First Nation decided to go ahead with the community’s traditional powwow next month.

“It is our culture,” McLean said.

Two months ago, Lake Manitoba was one of the first reserves in the province to restrict travel in and out of the community, about 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Many other First Nations followed. McLean said there have been no cases of COVID-19 in the region.

He said it has been difficult for many residents as they deal with the stress of isolation, financial strain and concern over their families. Some have turned to alcohol or drugs, he said.

He believes the powwow that is being organized will bring healing.

“It’s important because we are trying to start that healing process for our members.”

There have been 292 cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba; however, the number of infections has stagnated over the last few weeks. Wednesday marked the fifth consecutive day without a new case and there were only 14 active.

McLean and his council watched as the provincial government began to loosen restrictions this month. He said they decided to move forward with the powwow when the limit on outdoor gatherings was increased to 50 people.

“We will make sure that social distancing is being followed,” said the chief, who added that anyone not feeling well should not attend the event June 19-21.

“We won’t have people standing arm in arm, that’s for sure, but we will find a way to make it work for our community.”

The powwow is still being planned and McLean did not indicate how many people are expected to take part. Outside of community members, people from four nearby First Nations are likely to come, he said.

Organizers will be watching what happens with provincial public- health orders and will decide if there needs to be a limit on attendance, but there won’t be less than 100 people, McLean said.

The First Nation may get criticized for holding the powwow, but McLean noted the federal government has made it clear that Indigenous ceremonies won’t be stopped during the pandemic.

“Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said earlier this month after RCMP were sent to a sun-dance ceremony in Saskatchewan.

Any decision to cancel or postpone cultural practices remains up to community leadership, Indigenous Services spokesperson Martine Stevens said in an email. First Nations leaders and ceremonial organizers are given information on COVID-19 public health measures.

Manitoba Health said Indigenous ceremonies need to follow current public health recommendations. The department said it will work with First Nations to provide public health guidance.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said governments and First Nations need to be flexible to ensure traditions are maintained while keeping people safe.

“Everyone is super sensitive to the reality of what we are dealing with in the time of this pandemic,” he said.

Dumas said the assembly is in constant contact with the province’s chief public health officer and the federal government. First Nations are being advised to remain vigilant and look out for one another.

Manitoba chiefs acted quickly to keep communities safe when it was clear COVID-19 was spreading, Dumas said. They continue to do what’s best for their communities now that Manitoba is taking steps to reopen, he added.

“We aren’t going to be able to isolate ourselves forever, so how do we start living with this thing?”