By: Willow Fiddler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is being widely condemned and faces calls to apologize to First Nations people after he accused an Indigenous MPP of vaccine queue-jumping.
During Question Period on Thursday, Mr. Ford criticized NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa for allegedly “jumping the line” by travelling to two remote communities, which were not his own, to receive shots. Mr. Mamakwa is the only member of the legislature who hails from a First Nation.
“I talked to a few chiefs that were pretty upset about that, for flying into a community that he doesn’t belong to,” Mr. Ford said in the legislature, without providing names or evidence.
Mr. Mamakwa, a first-term New Democrat who hails from Kingfisher Lake First Nation and represents the Northern Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong, received two doses of the Moderna vaccine in February and March. He and First Nations leaders say he was invited to the communities of Muskrat Dam and Sandy Lake to help combat vaccine hesitancy.
Mr. Mamakwa said Mr. Ford’s comments amount to a lack of respect and compassion for Indigenous people.
“It’s about saving lives. It’s about a message that the vaccine is safe,” he said. “I think [Mr. Ford’s] comments are undermining and also damaging to the vaccination efforts that we’re trying to do.”
The remarks resulted in rebukes from the three opposition parties and Indigenous leaders, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who said vaccine hesitancy is a real problem: “Premier Ford’s comments are unacceptable and I encourage him to refrain from politicizing access to vaccines for First Nations.”
The Ontario government has prioritized First Nations communities in its vaccine rollout campaign. It launched Operation Remote Immunity on Feb. 1, the same day Mr. Mamakwa received his first vaccine dose, in Muskrat Dam First Nation.
The program, led by Ontario’s Ornge air-ambulance service and in co-operation with groups such as Nishnawbe Aski Nation, set out to reach adults in 31 fly-in First Nations communities and Moosonee in Northern Ontario. On Monday, the government said all communities had been offered a first dose. The government expanded eligibility on Feb. 14 to include to all Indigenous adults living anywhere in the province.
Prior to the vaccine clinic in Muskrat Dam, a preliminary survey indicated that about 66 per cent of eligible members would get it. But after the clinics for both Moderna doses, about 99 per cent have been vaccinated to date.
Sandy Lake has reported close to 1,200 eligible members having received the first dose so far.
The Premier’s Office declined to comment. Health Minister Christine Elliott on Thursday defended the Premier, saying he was expressing frustration because of the “continuing work” of vaccinating First Nations people.
“Everyone needs to wait their turn. I’m not sure whether [Mr. Mamakwa] was in the lineup for a vaccine or not,” she said.
Chief Gordon Beardy of Muskrat Dam says the Premier’s comments are an attack on him as chief, his council and community.
“That’s very irresponsible of him,” he said in a phone interview.
Chief Beardy said the leadership invited Mr. Mamakwa to participate in the vaccine clinic in February to help encourage community members who were reluctant about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It was to show that it was safe and that we the leaders are in support of it,” Chief Beardy said. “I thought [Mr. Ford] was serious about people taking the vaccine.”
He said he hasn’t heard of any First Nations chiefs who were upset over Mr. Mamakwa’s visit to Muskrat Dam.
Like Muskrat Dam, Sandy Lake First Nation also invited Mr. Mamakwa to participate in its vaccination clinic, where he got his second dose earlier this month.
In a letter to Mr. Mamakwa dated Feb. 18, the Sandy Lake chief and council said their goal is to have most of the eligible adult population vaccinated.
“By being here with us, you will help this cause tremendously,” the letter states. “It is our hope that having our elected leaders be part of this will help ease any discomfort people may have.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Mr. Ford to apologize to Mr. Mamakwa as well as to Indigenous leadership and people.
“The Premier rose in his place to insult the member and undermine the work of First Nations leadership and people in fighting COVID-19,” she said.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the remarks divisive and said he hopes Mr. Ford apologizes for his “really, really horrible mistake.” Through tears, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Premier’s comments made him sick to his stomach.