A multi-million dollar proposal to provide personal protective equipment to First Nations across Saskatchewan and possibly the country is caught in a cycle of shifting demands from Indigenous Services Canada, according to the chief of the James Smith Cree Nation.
Wally Burns, chief of James Smith Cree Nation about 60 kilometres east of Prince Albert, Sask., said First Nations across the country are looking to build up their own personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiles so they aren’t dependent on supplies maintained by Ottawa as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold.
The federal Indigenous Services department mainly supplies PPE for health care delivery in communities.
Burns said PPE should be available for all First Nations members, in particular school staff and students as schools slowly reopen in communities across the country. He said Ottawa has a specific duty to supply needed health supplies to treaty nations because of the medicine chest clause in some of the treaties, like Treaty 6 which covers James Smith Cree Nation.
Burns’s community, through its development corporation, has lined up a federally-licensed supplier with a secure pipeline of PPE.
Yet, for the past four months, Burns said ministerial and department officials have given him and other First Nation leaders the run-around on the proposal, continually suggesting approval hangs on a succession of proposed changes that are constantly evolving.
“I am kind of getting choked up here in regards to the whole thing. They are not taking this seriously,” said Burns.
“It’s hitting hurdle after hurdle, red tape after red tape. We meet them and they throw up another red flag.”
Miller’s department received the initial proposal in May, which was later tweaked at the request of an official in the minister’s office.
The initial proposal, which was backed by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, requested $120 million US — about $158 million Cdn — over six months to build up a stockpile of 19 million surgical masks, 58.4 million gloves, 170,000 face shields, 180,000 gowns and 146,000 litres of hand sanitizer per month.
The minister’s office then requested the proposal be trimmed down to focus on masks, hand sanitizers and gloves, according to letters from Burns to Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett that were provided to CBC News. The new proposal totalled about $136 million over six months for a PPE stockpile supplying all Saskatchewan First Nations.
Support from 4 provinces and a territory
Burns said the official in the minister’s office then requested proof that the proposal had support from First Nations communities in the province, despite letters sent to the minister by FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Burns.
Burns then gathered support letters from 11 First Nation members of the Prince Albert Tribal Council and sent it to Miller on Aug. 7 along with an updated $41 million proposal over six months to supply 70,000 First Nations people with PPE — the total membership of the tribal council member First Nations plus a portion for the off-reserve population.
“The minister has reneged again and funding has not been granted,” wrote Burns, in an Aug. 11 to Bennett.
Bennett’s office responded by referring Burns back to Miller’s office.
Over the summer, Burns said he received the support of several regional First Nations leaders, including from Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and New Brunswick, for a broader proposal to supply PPE to First Nations across the country.
“We want to work with them and if they can supply the First Nations in the Northwest Territories, the Dene communities, we would fully support that,” said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, who is also the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief for N.W.T.
“I think the department needs to know it’s 2020, First Nations have the capacity, have the support, the ability to help other First Nations. [ISC] should welcome that. It is a time of reconciliation.”
Burns submitted a separate $476 million proposal on July 30 to supply PPE to First Nations in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island over six months and a broader $763 million proposal to supply First Nations in all regions of the country for the same time period.
In an emailed statement, Miller’s office acknowledged it had received the proposals, but would not respond directly to CBC News’ questions on how it planned to respond to them.
The statement said ISC has provided about $154 million to Saskatchewan First Nations and Métis in COVID-19-related funding.
The minister’s office said ISC maintains a PPE stockpile that is primarily for department-run nursing stations, but is now also available for health care delivery in all First Nations. The statement said the department monitors PPE stockpiles in communities to ensure they never get depleted.
“Additionally, the department continues to process community PPE requests within a 24-48 hour period,” said the statement.
“As of Sept. 4, we have shipped 1,161 orders for PPE, including hand sanitizers, N95 masks, isolation shields and gloves.”
Burns said he is going to keep pushing the issue.
“We have to make sure we are heard not being tossed aside as the lowest of the lowest of the lowest,” he said.
“It’s not over. I am playing a thorn in their side. I am trying to make them accountable for their actions.”