Southern chiefs decry ‘unacceptable’ delay in rapid test supply


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OTTAWA — Federally supplied rapid tests are finally headed to Manitoba reserves, months after southern chiefs say Ottawa lost the supplies they’d requested at the onset of the Omicron variant.

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This article was published 04/02/2022 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Federally supplied rapid tests are finally headed to Manitoba reserves, months after southern chiefs say Ottawa lost the supplies they’d requested at the onset of the Omicron variant.

“It is absolutely unacceptable,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels told the Free Press.

“In no other instances do these sorts of thing happen — but within a First Nations instance, it does happen.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief, Jerry Daniels.

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization said it made a request in late September 2021 for both rapid tests and high-quality masks from Ottawa, for the 34 reserves it represents.

That was at the start of the fourth wave, which intensified in late November as the highly contagious Omicron variant took hold. The chiefs asked Ottawa about the status of the request, and claim they were told the shipment had been “misplaced.”

The departments of Health Canada and Indigenous Services Canada have a joint role in helping First Nations purchase COVID-19 supplies, and had difficulty verifying those claims, with questions ricocheting between the two since Tuesday.

They asked for more specifics Friday, which the organization did not provide.

Last month, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu said her department was working to clear red tape, after Manitoba chiefs told her Jan. 10 about bureaucratic hurdles to requesting federal aid.

“They’re asking that we reduce as much as we can any cumbersome request processes. My officials heard the calls for this efficiency and we’re working on ways we can streamlines processes every further,” Hajdu said Jan. 13.

In any case, the southern chiefs were able to find masks on the private market, and expect rapid tests from Ottawa to arrive later this month.

Daniels said it was scary to have First Nations reserves run out of supplies, which are only arriving as Omicron appears to be in decline.

“It took a very, very long time for us to get access to every essential supplies for our community, and we just really want to make sure that’s not going to be happening in future,” said Daniels.

He expected some sort of disruption as the world competed for gear to deal with a new variant. But he said a months-long delay makes no sense when gear is available on the private market.

“There’s a reason for that, and I don’t think it’s simply a logistics error. We have hugely advanced tracking systems,” Daniels said.

He had no concrete evidence of Ottawa prioritizing other groups.

However, Daniels said a legacy of the federal government providing inadequate services and health care to Indigenous people makes him wonder if racism is at play.

“I don’t think the shipment fell off the truck because of the convoy, or anything like that.”

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Friday he would have his officials prioritize looking into what happened.

“That’s obviously not acceptable,” he said.

“I understand my officials have already started to (look into it) but I’ll make sure that greater effort and focus is provided to that.”

First Nations in Manitoba have generally had a positive reception to the Trudeau government’s handling of COVID-19 on reserves. They’ve occasionally asked for faster responses and more action to tackle the underlying issues that drive transmission such as cramped housing.

However, Ottawa has bungled parts of it response, such as by deploying a team to build isolation tents at Pukatawagan the band had never requested. Ottawa first refused to explain its rationale, citing national security rules in May 2020, before eventually saying visiting nurses at the local clinic had made the request.

Daniels argues the situation bolsters the case for having Indigenous people take control over health-care services in their communities, through a process that is still in the early phases in Manitoba.

“We’re not seeing an improvement in the quality of life,” Daniels said of a system that remains largely controlled by federal and provincial bureaucrats.

Just before the pandemic took root in Canada, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization signed an agreement with Cuban officials that would have the communist country supply First Nations with doctors, though the Trudeau government was cool to requests for granting visas, ahead of the first pandemic lockdown.

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