OTTAWA — A Manitoba Indigenous leader is pointing to Premier Brian Pallister as the reason the province has become North America's COVID-19 epicentre.
"The blame for this disaster rests squarely on the shoulders of Premier Pallister and his cabinet," Southern Chiefs Grand Chief Jerry Daniels wrote in a Wednesday news release.
"They have let political interests interfere and not followed the science, and that has had deadly consequences."
In an interview later, he said First Nations are "going backwards" with Pallister's Progressive Conservative government.
"The relationship is deteriorating," Daniels said. "I don’t see the outcomes, in terms of First Nations’ quality of life, changing."
Pallister’s office insisted Wednesday that Manitoba has the strictest enforcement measures in the country.
Daniels said First Nations are frustrated after locking down their own communities, urging residents to stay home until sufficient vaccines are rolled out and relying on government subsidies in order to keep businesses closed.
"We've done our part, and a lot of people are frustrated at where we're at right now," he said. "When it's been time to shut it down, we shut it down. And we just don't think that same kind of aggressiveness has happened at the provincial level."
He said Manitoba's two-week quarantine requirement for non-essential workers entering from other provinces isn't strict enough. The government should have set up checkpoints at land borders and airports, and chided Pallister for not joining a push by some premiers to restrict interprovincial flights.
Daniels also had some criticism for Ottawa, saying the Trudeau government should have also clamped down on international travel, but said other provinces have still fared much better than Manitoba.
Last week, provincial officials released modelling they had suppressed for weeks, showing case numbers and hospitalization rates were racing towards the projected worst-case scenario in late April.
The province finally imposed significantly tightened public-health measures on May 9. Officials waited despite a well-documented lag effect in which even medium-sized outbreaks that aren’t contained escalate rapidly, bringing the health-care system to its knees.
This week, the province led Canada and the U.S. in the seven-day active case rate. Manitoba’s five-day average test-positivity rate is the highest in the country.
"We're ground zero for COVID right now, so we obviously need to send a message to the premier," said Daniels.
He argued the only way to make sure officials don't prematurely peel back restrictions is to call out the provincial government.
"Our intent is to put pressure on the premier, and for many people around him to take pressure too," he said. "They have to own that."
Manitoba has done an effective job sharing COVID-19 case data with Indigenous leadership, he said. But First Nations are subject to a racist health-care system instead of being allowed to form their own networks of care.
That provincial system is now under enough strain to have some patients being evacuated to Thunder Bay for care. First Nations make up roughly 10 per cent of the Manitoba population, but 45 per cent of intensive-care unit patients.
In a statement, the premier's spokeswoman wrote that the PCs will remain focused on getting Manitoba through the pandemic, and encouraged everyone to follow the rules and get vaccinated.
"(Daniels') comments are unfortunate and do not reflect the reality of Manitoba’s pandemic response," wrote Olivia Billson.
"Manitoba has implemented the strongest public-health and enforcement measures in the country."