On April 2 — in the opening days of the COVID-19 pandemic — Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he was preparing for the worst when it came to outbreaks on First Nations.
Should the pandemic emergency plans for any Indigenous community be overrun, Miller declared, he would not hesitate to send in the military to help.
"These are all plans that we are working on as a whole of government," the federal minister said, "but specifically with the Armed Forces, with Health Canada, and with the RCMP — looking at a number of scenarios as we try to plan out how this pandemic and the various waves will hit."
Such planning may feel like overkill, but it’s necessary. It’s long been known that when the coronavirus arrived at any First Nation it would spread faster, impact people worse, and be virtually impossible to control due to the lack of infrastructure, adequate housing, and health-care staff.
As predicted, the worst hit last week.
On Nov. 19, a military medical team from CFB Shilo was dispatched to Opaskwayak Cree Nation, after every resident of the Rod McGillivary Memorial Care Home, and one-third of its staff, tested positive for COVID-19.
OCN and The Pas have become a hotbed for coronavirus. As of Monday, OCN had a test positivity rate around 30 per cent and more than 200 active cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The military came at the invitation of OCN Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair, who for weeks has been aggressively trying to combat COVID-19 within the northwest Manitoba community.
Local officials have installed round-the-clock check points on roads, run by citizens and security who screen and record where travellers are going.
They’ve instilled a curfew of 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and fines of nearly $2,000 if community members break social-distancing and isolation guidelines.
They’ve established 100 "isolation wards" in the community hall and school.
These restrictions are similar to when the community had no positive cases and proactively went into a two-week lockdown in April.
OCN has a history of taking aggressive steps to stop COVID-19 (taking notes, Steinbach?), but it’s still not enough.
OCN is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the tipping point where the nation’s long–standing mistreatment and lack of decent, suitable living conditions on First Nations meets the limits of Canada’s health–care system.
They need the military for medical help. While there is a hospital across the river in The Pas, doctors and nurses in that town are dealing with its own outbreak.
"We wanted to make sure that medical support, in the form of doctors, nurses and health-care aides, can shore up the shortage," Sinclair told the Free Press on Nov. 19.
OCN may be the first local First Nations community to call in the military, but it certainly won’t be the last.
According to the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba, First Nations make up nine per cent of province’s population but 21 per cent of the province’s new COVID-19 cases, 27 per cent of hospitalizations, 38 per cent of patents in ICU beds, and 13 per cent of deaths from the disease.
All of these statistics have been rising one to three per cent per day.
Perhaps the most startling statistic is the five-day positivity test rate is 21 per cent on-reserve — a full seven percentage points higher than the provincewide number.
Similar patterns are being seen in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
While the federal government has at various times since the pandemic started sent paramedics and nurses to First Nations, with rising cases in urban areas those staff will be occupied, and most of what will be left is for the military to fill in where First Nations need it.
OCN is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the tipping point where the nation’s long-standing mistreatment and lack of decent, suitable living conditions on First Nations meets the limits of Canada’s health-care system.
In the middle now are the Canadian Armed Forces.
Expect more communities to call for help with outbreaks, and the military being Canada’s response.
The next few months may be a time of militarization of First Nations communities unprecedented since the Northwest Resistance of 1885.
Instead of invading and displacing First Nations, however, this effort comes with soldiers and nurses as allies, fighting alongside Indigenous peoples to save us all.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.