Canada sending military to remote First Nation hit by COVID-19

Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba is reporting 144 cases of COVID-19, prompting emergency government aid.

Canada's Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said Saturday that the Canadian military would be deployed to a northern Manitoba First Nation [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

Canada is sending the military to help a remote First Nations community handle a COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of Defence confirmed on Saturday, after the chief of Shamattawa First Nation requested help.

In a statement on Facebook, Chief Eric Redhead said Canada’s Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller had confirmed the army’s deployment to Shamattawa.

He said the community of a little more than 1,000 people, located more than 700km north of Winnipeg in Canada’s central province of Manitoba, has reported 144 cases of COVID-19 to date.

The military will provide a field hospital and temporary structures to allow COVID-positive residents to isolate safely without infecting others, Redhead said, as well as help the community’s rapid response team conduct contact-tracing and testing.

“This is not the end-all,” Redhead said. “The only way to beat this is for everyone to stay home, don’t allow visitors, limit your contact with others until we beat this.”

Canada is seeing a countrywide surge in COVID-19 cases, as public health officials urge people to remain vigilant and follow guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The country has reported more than 400,000 cases and more than 12,400 deaths linked to the virus since the start of the pandemic early this year.

Indigenous leaders and rights groups had raised concerns at the outset of the pandemic, saying water shortages, unequal access to healthcare services and overcrowded housing could make Indigenous communities more susceptible to the virus.

Indigenous Services Canada said on its website that 1,564 active cases of COVID-19 were recorded on First Nation reserves across the country as of December 3. Thirty-nine deaths and 4,303 total cases have been reported on reserves since the start of the pandemic.

‘Disproportionate impacts’

In an email to Al Jazeera Saturday afternoon, the Department of Defence said six Canadian Rangers would be sent to Shamattawa to provide “humanitarian assistance”.

The military will distribute food, firewood and care packages, the department said, as well as provide information to try to stem the outbreak and other help as needed. The deployment has been requested for 30 days.

“The Canadian Armed Forces will support the community of Shamattawa until the emergency has abated and the province, along with other federal and private sector resources are able to effectively support the community,” the department said.

It did not say when the rangers would arrive in Shamattawa.

Earlier this week, Indigenous leaders in Manitoba slammed Premier Brian Pallister after he said the federal government’s plan to reserve a portion of COVID-19 vaccines for vulnerable Indigenous communities would be “short-changing” non-Indigenous people.

“What that would mean then is Manitobans who do not live in northern Indigenous communities would be the least likely to get a vaccine in the country,” he said, as reported by Canadian media outlets.

“This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly.”

Indigenous leaders accused Pallister of “stoking the fires of division” with his comments.

“Make no mistake, the statements of Premier Pallister are inflammatory and divisive,” Grand Chief Garrison Settee of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, a group that represents 26 First Nation communities in northern Manitoba, said in a statement.

The group said provincial data shows that First Nations people account for about 25 percent of COVID-19 hospitalisations and 40 percent of intensive care admissions in Manitoba.

“It is important for the premier, and all Manitoba residents to be aware that COVID-19 is having disproportionate impacts on First Nations people,” Settee said.

Source: Al Jazeera