More than a week after a shipment of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Winnipeg earmarked for remote and vulnerable Indigenous communities, Manitobans remain in the dark about how the thousands of doses will be distributed.
The Pallister government said Wednesday it's ready to fly the Moderna brand vaccine doses north, based on Indigenous priorities.
Meanwhile, First Nations leaders have not given any public indication of where the vaccine is headed, much less how eligible residents will book appointments, where they will go to receive doses or who will administer it.
Plans were still being finalized Wednesday night, and the first batches could be flown out Thursday morning, said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
He couldn’t say which communities are first in line, however the first doses will be given to doctors and nurses working in remote communities, followed by elders and those at highest risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Asked why vaccine distribution hadn’t yet begun in Manitoba’s 63 First Nations communities, Dumas said AMC needed to gather data and consult with residents.
Twenty-six of the communities are fly-in, with no road access, few facilities and limited connectivity, so a lot of logistics had to be ironed out, he said.
"We're not a paternalistic organization; our communities actually participated in meaningful ways. There was some data collection that needed to be taken. Our communities are well-versed on... who their vulnerable populations are, who their front-line workers are," he said.
Manitoba received 7,300 Moderna doses Dec. 30; the province's vaccine roll-out task force allocated 5,300 for First Nations, based on their leaders' priorities. In the meantime, Saskatchewan and all three territories have administered the easier-to-transport Moderna doses.
Over the past week, numerous Manitoba chiefs and First Nations leaders have refused multiple interview requests about their roll-out plans. Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee released a statement Wednesday, saying details are expected later this week.
Federal and provincial sources say the various regional chiefs and governance bodies have been at occasional loggerheads over which groups to prioritize, before finally submitting a plan late Tuesday.
Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday it was better to craft the distribution plan in lockstep with First Nations, instead of a unilateral approach that would go against reconciliation.
During a live broadcast news conference, Pallister said he hadn't yet read the First Nations plan, but it took longer to develop because officials had to consider complex logistical issues.
"It's a different thing, you know, Pukatawagan's not P.E.I.; Thompson isn't Toronto. Rolling out a vaccine in Manitoba has more challenges, and our First Nation leaders have risen to the challenge of coming up with a game plan that we believe can work," Pallister said.
Hours later, Dumas said the hope is the doses will be on their way Thursday.
"A lot of these different organizations that normally don't collaborate are collaborating now in order to expedite how we roll out the vaccine," Dumas said. "All these little things take a little bit of time but if we do our due diligence, we'll have far greater success."
Planning started months before First Nations representatives joined the province’s vaccination task force, Dumas said.
"We weren't sitting on our hands. I acknowledge that the premier appreciates that we were actively participating within their system as of two weeks ago, but we've been working on this right from March. We've been proactive the whole way."
Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech brand vaccines arrived in Canada earlier than Ottawa had told provinces to prepare for. Still, Manitoba didn't include First Nations health leaders as part of its task force until Dec. 18.
"A lot of these different organizations that normally don't collaborate are collaborating now in order to expedite how we roll out the vaccine. – Grand Chief Arlen Dumas
The province hasn't heeded federal calls to include the Manitoba Metis Federation in its talks; Pallister said Wednesday there was Métis input on its vaccine plans.
More vaccine shipments for Manitoba First Nations are expected toward the end of March.
Pallister said the goal of reconciliation played a role in the perceived delay.
"Some have said, 'Well, you should have just sent the vaccines out right away.' This wouldn't have been respectful and it wouldn't have been the right approach," the premier said Wednesday.
He said the government would have been criticized if it didn't allow Indigenous leaders to prioritize the vaccine roll-out for their communities.
On Wednesday, Saskatchewan unveiled details on which of its remote regions would be receiving Moderna doses; that province has come under fire from First Nations and Métis leaders about a lack of consultation.
Pallister said Manitoba has the highest Indigenous population of any province and planning is important.
"Reconciliation strategies don't matter as much in some parts of the country, perhaps, as they do to me and as they do to our Indigenous people in Manitoba. So delaying a vaccine in the name of a process might seem like an unnecessary thing to do in another part of the country, but it is a necessary thing to do, I think, in the province of Manitoba, so that we get it right."
"Some have said, 'Well, you should have just sent the vaccines out right away.' This wouldn't have been respectful and it wouldn't have been the right approach." – Premier Brian Pallister
Last month, Pallister expressed concern about the federal government's plan to prioritize Indigenous communities, making comments Manitoba's two regional chiefs interpreted as racist.
On Wednesday, Dumas said he wanted to acknowledge the premier’s efforts to secure more vaccines for First Nations, which he said Pallister did "once he was attuned to the fact that in order to have a successful remedy and solution brought forward (we required) meaningful First Nations participation."
Ottawa again rejected calls from the AMC and MMF to have the federal Liberals negotiate directly with Manitoba's Indigenous leaders.
Late Wednesday night, First Nations leaders released the eligibility criteria for those who'll be first to receive the vaccine, starting Jan. 7. In a statement, AMC said an additional 5,300 doses of the vaccine are now expected to be delivered to First Nations communities by Feb. 23. There's still no word on which communities will be first to receive it.
The following First Nations priority groups have been identified by the taskforce:
· Essential health care workers providing services in remote and isolated communities who cannot access the provincial vaccination supersites
· Residents and staff of personal care homes and elder care facilities
· People over the age of 60 living in remote and isolated communities
· People over the age of 70 living in non-remote communities
All First Nation people over the age of 60 living in First Nation communities will be offered the vaccine in Stage Two.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.