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Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs says that First Nations are concerned about long-standing inequities and insufficient investments in health infrastructure and staffing.Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press

A growing number of COVID-19 cases in Manitoba has First Nations in the province worried that the virus will overwhelm their communities, but one grand chief says military assistance is not necessary yet.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) said First Nations are concerned about long-standing inequities and insufficient investments in health infrastructure and staffing that have put communities at higher risk for severe outbreaks and poor outcomes. AMC is calling for help such as immediate resources to ensure health services remain available, he added.

But Mr. Dumas said in a statement late Sunday that asking the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to help would be a “stopgap solution” that does not take into consideration what First Nations need and want.

The military was called in to assist communities, such as Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba, previously during the pandemic. During an outbreak in December, 2020, members of the CAF helped establish an isolation centre and conducted contact tracing and testing.

Mr. Dumas’s comments follow a call for military assistance from NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represents the federal riding of Churchill–Keewatinook Aski. In a statement on Friday, she said it has been made “abundantly clear” that First Nations are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

“Our region has gone above and beyond to stay safe, but more people are getting sick and we need the federal government to respond to the current urgent needs of communities,” Ms. Ashton said.

“Remote and isolated communities like Manto Sipi Cree Nation require particular support. This includes bringing the military back to ensure communities are able to function and limit the spread of COVID-19. Lives are on the line.”

Mr. Dumas, who supported Liberal candidate Shirley Robinson during the previous federal election, also said the New Democrat MP “did not make calls to leadership asking what supports they require that would enable them to address the crisis with community-based solutions.”

Ms. Ashton said on Monday in a statement that her focus is to ensure northern and Indigenous communities get the supports they need, especially during this public-health emergency, and she has been in contact with Indigenous people and leaders constantly as they “help their communities as cases surge again.”

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Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has said it recognizes that all communities, including First Nations, face significant challenges in dealing with COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has said Indigenous communities face a higher risk of spread and poor outcomes owing to health inequities, a higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions and a lack of hospitals in remote areas.

Andrew MacKendrick, the director of communications for Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu, said the department remains in direct communication with First Nations for any requests for support, including rapid tests, personal protective equipment, human resources and co-ordination with provincial partners.

Mr. MacKendrick said the government is also in touch with the Government Operations Centre, the Office of Emergency Preparedness and National Defence to respond to, and help co-ordinate, any requests for military support.

He said ISC will work directly with First Nations leaders and partners to ensure communities have supports they need, as it has throughout the pandemic.

On Saturday, three members of the armed forces visited Bearskin Lake First Nation in Ontario to conduct an assessment of what is required, said Daniel Minden, a press secretary for Defence Minister Anita Anand.

The community declared a state of emergency on Dec. 28, immediately after it confirmed its first COVID-19 case, Chief Lefty Kamenawatamin said. By Jan. 3, the virus had infected half the households in the community, and Mr. Kamenawatamin made a public call for military assistance from the government.

On Sunday, four Canadian Rangers began working in the community, Mr. Minden said. He added that an additional group of two to three local Rangers will end an isolation period as of Monday and assist with the outbreak.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said on Monday that he spoke to members of the community who were in “shock” because they expected more immediate help than the Rangers currently on the ground.

With a report from Willow Fiddler in Thunder Bay

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