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OTTAWA — The federal government says Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has to reach a compromise with First Nations wanting to hold powwows that exceed pandemic distancing rules.
"If you believe in self-determination of Indigenous peoples, you have to respect choices, even if you don’t agree with them," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told the Free Press Friday morning.
Lake Manitoba First Nation is planning a June 19 powwow, with the chief expecting at least double the province’s current 50-people maximum cap on gatherings.
Ottawa will not intervene when First Nations want to organize powwows or sun dances, and instead is providing guidance as requested for mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, Miller said.
On Thursday, Pallister told reporters he’d raise the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a phone call that evening, saying everyone has to follow the province’s public-health rules.
"We are not people who believe in two-tiered health," the premier said.
Miller shot back Friday that Indigenous people are "the victims" of a system that puts health care in many of their communities under federal management, instead of provincial or local governance.
"That was the cards, I think, that Indigenous communities would say they were dealt, going into this pandemic, and creates that vulnerability that is exacerbated by COVID-19."
Working with Indigenous communities on public health is more complicated, but ultimately more effective than dictating how bands should respond, Miller said.
"We can’t sit here in Ottawa and dictate terms to First Nations; that’s been tried before," he said.
"Will mistakes be made? Most certainly. But that means more intent negotiation; it means more intense engagement and, sometimes, disagreement."
He added that Manitoba’s First Nations have had "exemplary" measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 into their communities.
As of Friday morning, no Manitobans who self-identify as First Nations have tested positive for COVID-19 since May 1. Of the province’s 294 cases, 16 have been First Nations. No data has been published on Métis or Inuit people.
Lake Manitoba Chief Cornell McLean told the Canadian Press that the pandemic has put financial and mental strain on many in his community, 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
He said ceremonies can help steer people away from alcohol and drugs.
"It’s important because we are trying to... start that healing process for our members," McLean said.
Earlier this month, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe similarly criticized the Trudeau government, after RCMP were dispatched to a sun dance ceremony.
Miller would not say Friday whether Ottawa will compensate provinces if the events trigger outbreaks that burden health systems.
The federal government has helped fund a response plan to an outbreak of COVID-19 in northern Saskatchewan that has impacted remote Métis and Dene communities. The outbreak has been linked to work camps in the Alberta oilpatch.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs will soon publish guides to limit the spread of COVID-19 at sun dances, powwows and other gatherings.
Dr. Marcia Anderson, a medical officer of health, urged Indigenous people to avoid clustering in large groups and consider drive-in and radio events. Singing and speaking loudly spreads droplets, she noted.
"People might want to think about whether they have several people with hand-drums, instead of being all seated around a big drum," she said in a Friday livestream.
"They’re critical parts of ceremonies and powwows, so we don’t want to say ‘don’t do it at all,’ but we want to think about how we can be creative and flexible."
Updated on Friday, May 29, 2020 at 5:03 PM CDT: write-thru with updates, adds photo
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