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For immediate release
November 4, 2020
Treaty Five Territory, Thompson, MB – Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Inc. is issuing this statement about the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Keeyask construction site in Northern Manitoba. This statement is being made along with four MKO First Nations who are partners in this project: Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, and York Factory Cree Nation.
“Today we are calling on the Prime Minister of Canada to step in and ensure that the uncontrolled outbreak at the Keeyask construction project is addressed urgently. Our multiple meetings with Manitoba Hydro have made it clear that this corporation has no plan to address the uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak at the Keeyask construction site in Northern Manitoba,” shared Grand Chief Garrison Settee. “We have called on the Manitoba Premier and Minister of Health to meet with us urgently and yet we receive no acknowledgement of the urgency of this situation.”
MKO, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC), and the First Nations met with Manitoba Hydro’s CEO, Manitoba Hydro staff, as well as public health officials on October 31 and November 2. MKO, the AMC, and the First Nations once again with Manitoba Hydro staff on November 3. The First Nations were seeking clear and concrete details on next steps and a clear plan on how the uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 would be contained for the Keeyask construction site. They were also seeking information on the exact number of workers who have left the Keeyask site since October 20, 2020.
“I am deeply concerned and worried about my TCN members and all people at Keeyask,” shared Chief Doreen Spence of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation. “Back in the spring we repeatedly tried to work with and tell Manitoba Hydro we were concerned about Keeyask as a potential site where COVID-19 would be enabled to enter our communities. We were forced to lockdown the north, to protect our members and communities, and have our concerns taken seriously. Now our worst fears have come true and we need the Government of Canada to step in and help us ensure First Nations people will be kept safe from the uncontrolled epidemic being allowed to continue at this Manitoba Hydro site. The health and safety of our members and people in the north is our number one concern and priority.”
On October 22, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed at the Keeyask site. First Nations leaders learned of 31 positive cases on November 1, 2020. Contract tracing has been completed for these 31 cases and 129 contacts were identified via this process. More than 100 people are now in isolation. At least two people who tested positive for COVID-19 left the Keeyask construction site. Contract tracing has identified that the virus has moved to at least two more health regions besides the Northern health region.
“First Nations leaders are trying to protect our people. We are rightfully concerned about the health of our Elders, our babies, our children, and all people in our communities,” shared Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas. “We are sovereign Nations and have the right to protect our people. We have worked extremely hard to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the North, now we are facing an uncontrolled epidemic at a site of 750 people. This is unacceptable and the federal government must step in now.”
“There is a breakdown in communication to the First Nations and to the workers at the Keeyask site,” said Chief Leroy Constant of York Factory. “Our citizens working in Keeyask keep asking us for reassurance. Manitoba Hydro must improve its communication. We need a clear indication that Manitoba Hydro has control over this outbreak. Things are clearly out of control at this point.”
“What’s happening at Keeyask should be a concern to all Manitobans as our intensive care units are now at capacity,” shared Dr. Barry Lavallee, medical expert and Chief Executive Officer of the health entity Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin. “COVID cases in First Nations people in Manitoba are growing. We currently make up 48% of all ICU cases and First Nations people make up 24% of all current COVID-related hospitalizations in Manitoba. We are asking that Keeyask be put into ‘care and maintenance’ mode for at least 14 days, potentially longer, to get this outbreak under control.”
“It’s clear that Manitoba Hydro was not prepared for an outbreak at Keeyask,” said Chief Morris Beardy of Fox Lake. “We are hearing from workers at the site. They are scared. We are hearing from workers trying to find safe isolation places not knowing what to do. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for the safety of all workers at Keeyask and it is unacceptable for the communities across Manitoba where these workers need to return to. We cannot risk this outbreak spreading to our vulnerable communities or beyond.”
“We are deeply concerned with the current situation at Keeyask. We have a responsibility to our members, and to all Manitobans, to ensure that the spread of COVID-19 at site and beyond is minimized. Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Public Health have been too slow in taking steps to reduce the risk of a broader spread of the virus. As manager of the Keeyask Project, Manitoba Hydro has a responsibility to all Manitobans to be transparent and to utilize all available resources to ensure the spread is contained. In the short term, we will work to ensure our Members, and others working at the site, can safely return to their homes, without contributing to the further spread of this virus.” stated Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation.
“The four First Nations are supposed to be partners in the Keeyask project, yet they are not being treated as equal partners,” shared Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Kevin Hart. “Earlier this year the First Nations stood their ground and created blockades in an effort to keep COVID-19 out of Northern Manitoba. Now today we find ourselves imploring Manitoba Hydro to continue to renew the relationship with their partners. This would include withdrawing the action filed against Chief Doreen Spence and other named KCN members. An apology for not listening to the First Nations in the first place would also be timely.”
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, MKO First Nations have expressed concerns about Manitoba Hydro’s plans for the Keeyask construction site and asked to be included in pandemic planning and response plans, should cases arise at Keeyask.
In May 2020, the RCMP served Chief Doreen Spence with an injunction ordering that the lockdown be dismantled. In ensuing negotiations between the partners, a key consideration for the First Nations was that in exchange for dismantling the lockdown, they would be included in pandemic planning for the site and the action would be withdrawn. To date, neither of these issues have been honoured.
MKO continues to work closely with the First Nations and will provide information on the COVID-19 outbreak at Keeyask as information becomes available.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO) is a non-profit, political advocacy organization that has represented 26 First Nation communities in Manitoba’s North since 1981. The MKO represents more than 72,000 First Nations people.