Reflecting on the year 2021, it has been another challenging time as we continued to live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year has also been a time to reckon with the genocide carried out against our own people as we observed the ongoing uncovering of thousands of First Nations children buried in unmarked graves at the sites of many residential schools across the country.
In May 2021, a devastating announcement was made in connection with the site of the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia with the detection of 215 unmarked graves. The uncovering of mass graves at the sites of multiple former residential schools has been triggering for so many of us and yet it has also opened conversations that need to happen.
At Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), we will continue to listen to survivors, their families, and the communities on actions we need to take on the road to healing from the intergenerational trauma created by the residential school system in Canada. We also acknowledge the survivors of the Sixties Scoop and have called for a national inquiry into this damaging practice of permanently removing Indigenous children from their families and communities.
It was uplifting to see Manitoba citizens of all ages and backgrounds stand with us as we asserted that there is “no pride in genocide” on July 1 and that “every child matters” on September 30. I encourage Manitoba citizens to continue to learn more about the intergenerational impacts of the residential school system on our communities. It is essential we confront the truth on our road to reconciliation.
I had the opportunity to visit sites in Brandon, Elkhorn, and The Pas where MKO children were once forced to attend residential schools. Although the structures no longer stand, we will not forget the children who were lost to these schools and we will continue to take steps to honour the memory of these precious children.
Confronting anti-Indigenous racism
Another truth we must confront is that anti-Indigenous racism permeates our society and impacts us across all systems. More than ever, it seems that Indigenous peoples are standing strong and speaking up about the racism they have experienced.
In 2021, I joined others in publicly calling for the resignation of Brian Pallister from his role as Premier of Manitoba due to the ongoing anti-Indigenous sentiments he expressed in public forums. Many Manitoba citizens stood with us in condemning the racism we witnessed coming from the provincial government.
With Mr. Pallister’s resignation and positive steps taken by his successors, such as opening the door to regular meetings and ensuring the first land acknowledgement was read within the Manitoba legislative building, I am encouraged we are on a new path where we will work together to make genuine strides towards reconciliation.
MKO continues to fight against anti-Indigenous racism across various systems, most notably, health care and justice. We continue to work closely with Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin and the Northern Health Region when it comes to addressing anti-Indigenous racism in health care.
Justice and policing
In the area of justice, I was honoured to have the opportunity to tour the Stony Mountain Penitentiary and the Headingley Correctional Centre to learn more about the lived realities of MKO citizens who are involved within these systems. I look forward to visiting more correctional centres in 2022.
In 2021, we were encouraged by improved relationships with justice officials. We continue to advocate for changes within the Independent Investigations Unit and we hold police systems to account when it comes to police-involved shootings that result in a loss of life for MKO citizens. We share our knowledge about restorative justice in an effort to reclaim these practices for the well-being of our community members.
We continue to work closely with the RCMP to discuss many issues that became exacerbated due to the pandemic. This year, the Manitoba RCMP, MKO, and Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) worked to develop a protocol to assist RCMP officers in enforcing local COVID-19 bylaws enacted by First Nations in Northern Manitoba and for the PPSC to conduct the prosecution of bylaw offences, upon their discretion, committed in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocol provided MKO First Nations with an important tool to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to work closely with the RCMP and MKO First Nations on this issue.
Our children are sacred: Acknowledging child and youth mental wellness
The pandemic had a serious impact on children and youth. State of emergencies were declared in Shamattawa and Tataskweyak Cree Nation due to the high rates of youth suicide. One suicide is too many as children are the center of our communities. MKO will continue to address the mental wellness of youth and children. I send my condolences to all of the families and community members who have been impacted by the loss of young people to suicide.
In June 2021, MKO hosted “Honouring the Gifts: MKO’s Youth Cultural Celebration,” a week-long virtual arts festival for youth ages 12 to 18. We created this online event as one way to instill hope in young people from MKO Nations and to encourage their talents. Thanks to the support of generous sponsors, we were able to provide new iPhones and iPads to youth who took part in the contests. We also provided $50 gift cards for Northern Stores to all 139 participants so that each youth would know we care about and appreciate their involvement in our festival. It is our hope that we can run this celebration on an annual basis. Please read our final report for the Honouring the Gifts here.
Re-election as MKO Grand Chief
On August 18, 2021, I was re-elected in my role as Grand Chief at MKO’s 40th Annual General Assembly in beautiful Norway House Cree Nation. Ekosani to all the leaders for supporting me as I undertake a second term as Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief.
As MKO Grand Chief, I continue to make it a priority to be accessible and to provide support to MKO Chiefs, Headmen, Councillors, and their communities. I am dedicated to serving our North and am based in Thompson to make myself available to the people in our Northern communities. I am thankful for the opportunity to provide leadership in this role.
MKO continued to navigate the pandemic and ensure First Nations citizens had access to COVID-19 vaccines. Our health experts were essential in guiding our response to the pandemic. They agreed to be part of Manitoba’s Vaccine Implementation Task Force to help guide the province on vaccine roll out and distribution.
I send appreciation to Dr. Barry Lavallee and Joni Wilson for their tireless work on this file, along with all technicians who supported their work. I also thank Dr. Michael Routledge for agreeing to be part of regular updates we provided on COVID-19 via Facebook Live broadcasts.
I’m thankful to all MKO staff who work tirelessly in support of Northern First Nations. I witness MKO staff in action at a variety of events, where their dedication and care for community members is apparent. Our staff support MKO’s efforts in advocating for First Nations and I thank them for the diligence shown throughout the pandemic.
Community advocacy and engagements
Due to COVID-19, I have not been able to visit as many communities as I would have liked in 2021. It is my hope to continue travelling to MKO First Nations in 2022 when it is safe to do so.
Our Elders have always been the strength of our governance and our communities. They provide the traditional knowledge and wisdom handed to them through generations. I seek guidance from the Elders and I thank those who have met with me in 2021.
This summer, I invited all former MKO Grand Chiefs to join me to spend a day together. Four of the former MKO Grand Chiefs were able to attend, and I thank them for sharing their wisdom and reflections with my team and I. We will be thinking about the guidance we received and using much of it in our strategic planning.
Highlights from the last year include the opportunity to visit some First Nations when it was safe to do so, advocating and providing support for people experiencing homelessness in The Pas and Thompson, having our office in Thompson assist more than 2500 people to apply for secure status cards, and settling into our new Winnipeg office at 1700 Ellice Avenue.
Moving forward in the new year
I will continue to take direction from MKO leadership and will provide advocacy and lobbying on concerns such as:
- Addressing anti-Indigenous racism across all systems
- Child and youth wellness, including issues connected to child welfare and bringing our children home
- COVID-19 pandemic recovery: I will continue to provide support to leadership on all issues arising out of concern due to the pandemic
- Infrastructure and high-speed Internet: We will continue to advocate for First Nations to have piped and running water, access to high-speed Internet, etc.
- Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two Spirit and gender-diverse people: We will continue to push for all levels of government to support the Calls for Justice
- Residential school burial sites and the need to implement the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
- Other initiatives: My priority is to act on the direction of the Chiefs-in-Assembly and its mandate
I extend sincere thanks to our leadership (the MKO Executive Council and the MKO Chiefs-in-Assembly), community members, funders, and partners. I also thank all MKO staff who dedicate themselves to carrying out advocacy work on behalf of Northern First Nations. I am proud to work with such dedicated individuals.
In closing, I want to wish all of you a very peaceful and safe new year. May 2022 bring blessings and good health to all MKO citizens.
Kinanaskomitinan, masi cho, meegwetch, and thank you for your ongoing support. It is my great honour to serve as your Grand Chief.
Grand Chief Garrison Settee
Special achievements by MKO and KIM staff members in 2021
Congratulations to staff members who brought us joy this year due to their achievements.
In January 2021, I had the honour of watching MKO’s Stewart Hill successfully defend his dissertation called “The Autoethnography of an Inniniw from God’s Lake, Manitoba, Canada: First Nation Water Governance Flows from Sacred Indigenous Relationships, Responsibilities and Rights to Aski.” Stewart completed his Doctor of Philosophy in Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Manitoba.
In February 2021, MKO’s Hilda Anderson-Pyrz was recognized as an “Honour 150 Recipient” for her role in making Manitoba an amazing province. Hilda is a tireless and passionate advocate on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit, and gender-diverse people who works to honour the memory of her sister Dawn.
In June 2021, Dr. Barry Lavallee, Chief Executive Officer of Keewatinohk Inniniw Minoayawin Inc., was named as a 2021 Honorary Fellow by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Canada.
Congratulations to Dr. Stewart Hill, Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, and Dr. Barry Lavallee on your achievements.