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First Nations in Manitoba keeping COVID-19 restrictions for now despite easing in province

Manitoba has lifted the last of its pandemic-related restrictions this week, but First Nations in the province say they live under different social circumstances and will continue to implement their own rules.

“We still have COVID in the community,” said Clarence Easter, chief of Chemawawin Cree Nation, 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

On Tuesday, the province of Manitoba removed the last of its COVID restrictions, which included an indoor mask mandate and mandatory isolation periods for positive cases.

“I think those restrictions are more geared to city centres like Winnipeg. Brandon, Dauphin, Thompson, you know, but they’re not geared for communities like ours,” said Easter. 

Easter said Chemawawin has had a community checkpoint for just over two years in order to limit COVID-19 transmission in the community that will remain in place for now, along with mask mandates and other guidelines.

first nations in manitoba keeping covid 19 restrictions for now despite easing in province
Chemawawin Cree Nation Chief Clarence Easter said Manitoba’s health guidelines are geared toward city centre’s such as Winnipeg and Thompson and that his community will be monitoring its own COVID-19 situation over the next few weeks to see if lifting restrictions is warranted. (Submitted by Clarence Easter)

Limited health facilities

In Barren Lands First Nation, also known as Brochet, the remote community of just over 300 people is currently dealing with an active COVID-19 outbreak, with 25 active cases as of March 15.  

Chief Trina Halkett said the community has 15 homes that are currently under isolation orders and that for northern First Nations like hers, the situation is much different than in other parts of the province.

first nations in manitoba keeping covid 19 restrictions for now despite easing in province 1
Barren Lands First Nation Chief Trina Halkett has been dealing with an ongoing COVID outbreak in the last few weeks. She said that an isolation trailer is being sent to the community this week and she hopes to have it in operation by April. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

“We don’t have a health care facility like what is needed,” said Halkett. “We’re limited with the nurses within the community, like we only have two. It’s a nursing station. It’s not like in the urban area, where they have a hospital.”

She said the band recently conducted a survey to figure out how people felt about lifting COVID-related restrictions, with the results ending up being split nearly 50/50.

She said her leadership team decided to keep some restrictions, including indoor mask use and 50 per cent capacity limits.

Protecting elders

In Fisher River Cree Nation, 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg, the community also decided to keep most of its pandemic-related restrictions. For Chief David Crate, the decision comes down to protecting the vulnerable.

“We’ve got a high population of elders in the community,” he said.

Fisher River’s personal care home went through an outbreak recently, and Crate said the situation was manageable thanks to the community’s high vaccination uptake.

Crate said that the band will continue to keep mask mandates, capacity limits, as well as mandatory proof of vaccination for public premises.

Situation is different in every community

Dr. Marcia Anderson, one of the leaders for the pandemic crisis response team of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), said the circumstances are going to be different for each community in the province.

“First Nations communities and even urban Indigenous communities are examples where there is higher underlying structural risk,” said Anderson. 

Those risks are well known, she said, and include: more crowded housing, higher incidence of income insecurity, lower food security, systemic barriers to accessing health care and more likelihood of overcrowding in schools.

“I think when there’s that higher underlying structural risk that impacts your communities, we have to think not just about our personal risk, but how we contribute or can make choices that also lower that collective risk,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the AMC’s pandemic response team is encouraging First Nations to keep their mask mandates and is offering advice for any community that is thinking about changing its own public health guidelines.

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