Saskatchewan’s premier says First Nations are receiving mixed messages after Canada’s Indigenous services minister said sacred ceremonies would be allowed to continue despite restrictions put in place due to COVID-19.
“No one should be exempt from these health orders because, quite frankly, no one is exempt from the virus,” Scott Moe said Thursday afternoon.
Concern about ceremonies surfaced after RCMP were dispatched to a Saskatchewan First Nation where people were holding a sun-dance ceremony last weekend. Organizers said they worried important traditions were being pushed back underground.
A federal ban on Indigenous ceremonies and potlatches came into place in 1884 and lasted until the 1950s. Minister Marc Miller said earlier Thursday that banning sacred ceremonies is a “dark stain” on the country’s history.
“Even in the face of a historic pandemic, Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices,” Miller said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Indigenous community leaders know what needs to be done to keep people safe.
“We should be able to work with them to develop ways of continuing with important customs and practices for them in a way that abides by health recommendations,” he said.
Saskatchewan RCMP said they received two reports of a large public gathering on the Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation, about 90 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, on Sunday.
There were 35 people taking part in the ceremony, but attendees said they were following precautions set by the chief and council, including social distancing and having temperatures taken.
A public-health order in Saskatchewan limits gatherings to 10 people.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has said provincial public-health orders do not supersede First Nations laws and treaties.
Indigenous Services Canada did not clarify who has jurisdiction to enforce provincial public-health orders on First Nations. Spokesperson Leslie Michelson said in an email that First Nations leaders are encouraged to consider public-health guidelines and the department respects measures put in place by chiefs and councils.
Miller said First Nations leadership will ultimately decide whether to go ahead with ceremonies and how to do it.
Moe, however, said there should be no exceptions, since everyone relies on the provincial health system.
“With respect to the comments of the minister, as well as Indigenous Services themselves, around these particular events being exempt from public health orders — that simply cannot be the case,” Moe said.
There were 185 positive cases of COVID-19 on First Nations reserves as of Wednesday, with 43 of them in Saskatchewan.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press
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