OTTAWA — First Nations are warning Manitoba's desire to gradually lift pandemic restrictions could wreak havoc on reserves that still don’t have COVID-19 spread under control.

OTTAWA — First Nations are warning Manitoba's desire to gradually lift pandemic restrictions could wreak havoc on reserves that still don’t have COVID-19 spread under control.

"As the public health restrictions are lifted, even lightly, numbers will go up," Dr. Marcia Anderson warned in a Wednesday video meeting hosted by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

The province could slightly loosen COVID-19 measures as soon as this weekend, after months of tight restrictions that have finally drawn down case numbers.

Yet, Anderson, a medical officer of health, noted case numbers are growing on reserves and among First Nations living off-reserve — unlike the decline of cases in the general population.

"When we look at First Nations alone, we can't say those numbers are heading in the right direction," she said. "We are starting from a significantly worse-off place than we were the fall."

Anderson said poorer overall health and cramped housing conditions on reserves allow the novel coronavirus to rip through communities. For example, one single home with 24 residents had to isolate after a case emerged, she said.

The province has specifically exempted the north from any loosening of restrictions to account for the vulnerability of Indigenous communities. But Anderson said people will still travel to cities with looser restrictions and return home.

"Our health systems and our community supports have to be ready, because likely we are going to see higher case numbers over the next couple of months."

Earlier Wednesday, federal bureaucrats said they believe it was provinces reopening businesses that lead to the explosion of cases on Prairie reserves in the fall.

"Non-essential travel, where that was permitted obviously, may have exposed communities to greater risks," said Valerie Gideon, a senior official with Indigenous Services Canada.

Officials noted Ontario and Quebec reserves fared worse in the first wave of the pandemic, compared to the second wave, where Prairie provinces are reporting high numbers in Indigenous communities.

Gideon said that is likely due to restaurants, sports centres and wedding venues reopening. "It becomes very difficult for community (leaders) to limit the travel of their community members to those public spaces."

In fact, the top COVID-19 funding request bands submitted to Ottawa were for running checkpoints to screen people entering their communities.

"The opening up of the economy, no doubt, I think it affected everyone," said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. "People let their guard down, for sure."

He hailed Manitoba bands for keeping COVID-19 infection rates at multiples lower than the disastrous outbreaks seen among Native Americans on U.S. reservations.

"Your efforts have worked, and you continue to defy odds that are multiple times higher than in non-Indigenous communities and that's worth holding up, particularly as we see these active case numbers jump," Miller told chiefs during the AMC discussion.

He’s also trying to get provinces to make Métis and urban Indigenous people a main vaccine priority for the spring, saying it’s "a bit of a false dichotomy" to focus only on reserves.

"They do present the same level of vulnerabilities and that's the careful, and frankly quiet, work that we're doing with provinces."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca