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Manitoba Health is working with First Nations organizations to collect and share information on their community members who test positive for COVID-19, while urban Indigenous and Métis leaders say they're waiting to get such information.

"We don't have it. I can't think of any reason not to share it," said Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg president Damon Johnston, who is part of an urban Indigenous coalition that pushed for a COVID-19 testing site to be opened at Circle of Life Thunderbird House.

He's not sure if the province has enough information collected on non-status urban Indigenous people to share.

"I don't think they have the data yet," he said.

Manitoba public health nurses on April 3 began asking all who tested positive for the virus if they identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. On April 28, the province signed an agreement to share that information with the Manitoba First Nations' pandemic response co-ordination team, which includes the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Southern Chiefs Organization, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. and the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba.

It didn't include organizations such as the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg or the Manitoba Metis Federation, representing an estimated 150,000-plus Indigenous Manitobans.

"If they're gathering their data on our people, they're not telling me who they're collecting it from," Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand said Wednesday. "When we don't know what's out there, we're fishing in the dark."

Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg president Damon Johnston says his organization hasn't yet seen any of the data collected in Manitoba, and isn't even sure any data exists yet. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg president Damon Johnston says his organization hasn't yet seen any of the data collected in Manitoba, and isn't even sure any data exists yet. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press files)

He wondered what public health officials will do if there is an outbreak in a rural or urban Métis community such as the one happening next door in northern Saskatchewan.

"Look at La Loche," he said.

An outbreak in the Dene-Métis community has left at least two people dead.

"The Métis are getting a pounding," Chartrand said.

The deal signed with Manitoba First Nations organizations last week will see them receive daily reports on those who test positive that include age, gender, pre-existing conditions, if they're on or off reserve, the location of diagnosis and death rate.

"Having access to this information will help First Nations better plan for and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in a news release Wednesday.

"This information sharing agreement is the first of its kind in Canada, and respects the principles of data ownership, control, access and possession and First Nations data sovereignty," Manitoba's chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said in a press release issued Tuesday by the First Nations pandemic response co-ordination team.

When asked Wednesday if the Métis will be getting such information, Roussin wasn't clear.

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, says no one has contacted his organization about what kind of information the province is collecting. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, says no one has contacted his organization about what kind of information the province is collecting. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

"There's a large collaboration that's been in place. An agreement was signed with many Indigenous partners... I don't have specifics of the MMF, where they lie in it," he said.

Information collected about Indigenous Manitobans, Roussin has made clear, will not be shared with the public, unless the province's Indigenous partner — the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs — agrees to it.

"This is unbelievable they would hide this information," said Chartrand. He said Métis live in close-knit groups in Manitoba cities and rural areas and need to make informed decisions about COVID-19.

"They'd love to know —- to solve the problem, to help out, or to at least help by staying away."

Both Métis and urban Indigenous leaders said they want to know the impact of the coronavirus on their communities, and pointed to U.S. data shared with the public showing African and Indigenous Americans are hardest hit.

"Indigenous people in Manitoba as a whole have the worst social determinants of health of all Canadians," said Johnston. Collecting and sharing data is going to be key to coming up with a strategy to improve that, he said.

"We need to work with Indigenous leadership across Manitoba to bring more positive change for all of us," Johnston said. In Winnipeg where the urban Indigenous population is expected to grow to 114,000 by 2021, non-profit and charitable organizations providing health and social services to them are going to have to be especially strategic.

"We're going to face now some very tough economic times, and resources are going to be much scarcer," he said.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak says reports about positive tests that include age, gender, pre-existing conditions, if they're on or off reserve, will help First Nations groups better plan for and respond to the pandemic. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak says reports about positive tests that include age, gender, pre-existing conditions, if they're on or off reserve, will help First Nations groups better plan for and respond to the pandemic. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

There are positive and negative implications for going public with COVID-19 testing data, said a Manitoba regional chief who co-chairs the Assembly of First Nations COVID-19 task force.

"On the positive side, we do need that true data for First Nations leaders to make informed decisions about the protection of their citizens," Kevin Hart said Wednesday.

On the other hand, when cases are announced in a district, that may result in "scapegoating and singling out people and some of the racism that's occurred," Hart said.

"Some of our most vulnerable and impoverished people are northerners who are already subject to discrimination."

One medical expert who agreed to comment anonymously questioned whether that provincial data would ever be made public.

"If rural and urban Indigenous communities become infected in a second wave, then we will see a very bad situation unfolding in front of our eyes — like Island Lake in 2008-2009 —- and then we will not need collected data, we will see a disaster."

In Island Lake, a deadly H1N1 outbreak overwhelmed the remote community.

"I hope this does not happen. This virus is rather unpredictable," the expert said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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