OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is escalating its concern about the Manitoba Metis Federation being excluded from the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, as the MMF starts trying to cut deals with manufacturers.
"It is unfortunate that significant issues appear to remain with regards to the vaccine distribution process in Manitoba — notably the issue of equal access for all Indigenous populations," Liberal cabinet minister (and Winnipeg MP) Dan Vandal wrote in a Sunday letter to Premier Brian Pallister.
"I believe we can agree that it should not take an outbreak among Métis and Inuit populations before greater vaccine access is granted, and that these discussions should not be taking place through media negotiations. "
Manitoba invited First Nations leaders and doctors to join the province’s vaccine task force, which decides on priority groups and logistics, around Christmas.
The province had also signed a data-sharing agreement with First Nations in April, showing much more severe COVID-19 outcomes than the general population.
The MMF and the province both blame each other for not coming to a similar agreement, with each side saying they failed to respond to correspondence. The MMF and Pallister have quarrelled over multiple issues since 2018.
Yet, there are as many as 125,000 Métis people in Manitoba who are not currently prioritized for vaccines, as well as a much smaller cohort of Inuit people.
That’s despite a federal advisory panel of scientists urging provinces for months to prioritize all Indigenous people, which the Trudeau government has echoed.
MMF president David Chartrand shared the letter with the Free Press on Monday.
"I do appreciate them pushing a little harder," Chartrand said. "The other provinces in the Prairies are taking heed to it, so why aren’t you?"
Vandal raised the issue in a letter six weeks ago, and wrote another Sunday asking to meet with the premier, saying it appears meetings with his ministers have not fixed the issue.
The MMF has said the province at one point asked it to provide a physician in order to join the task force, instead of a logistics technician, though the province has never confirmed this.
The premier’s office responded Monday that Manitoba’s prioritization is set by the vaccine task force — the very body the MMF is trying to join.
"We prefer to respond to inter-governmental correspondence through the proper channels, not through the media. However, I would remind you and your readers that vaccine criteria and priority lists are determined by Manitoba’s vaccine task force and our public health leaders, not elected officials," wrote spokeswoman Olivia Billson.
Provincial officials have instead invited the MMF to partake in side committees that focus on messaging around vaccine hesitancy, and a separate committee to examine the logistics of reaching Métis communities — which Chartrand said was akin to "the kiddie table."
That’s why the MMF has started contacting vaccine manufacturers directly, asking to ink deals as a sovereign government.
Chartrand said he spoke Monday with Pfizer Canada senior manager Bob Dawson, and the company noted a scarcity of doses worldwide.
"We had a good discussion about what’s happened with the Métis people in Manitoba," Chartrand said. "They said they wanted the medicine to reach every citizen that needs it."
The Canadian government has purchased more doses of COVID-19 vaccine per capita than any other country, and provinces have been stymied in their own attempts to convince the main manufacturers to sign separate deals.