New protocol could help northern Manitoba First Nations enforce COVID-19 bylaws — if they choose

First Nations in northern Manitoba could have stricter enforcement of COVID-19 bylaws in their respective communities if they sign up for a new protocol announced by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak on Tuesday.

First Nations can sign contract with RCMP, federal prosecution service to enforce health rules on reserve: MKO

Northern Manitoba First Nations chiefs have been calling Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) saying they've been having trouble enforcing COVID-19 bylaws on reserve, said Grand Chief Garrison Settee. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

First Nations in northern Manitoba could have stricter enforcement of COVID-19 bylaws in their respective communities if they sign up for a new protocol announced by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak on Tuesday.

Some chiefs had called Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) — which represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba — saying they had trouble enforcing COVID-19 bylaws in their community, said Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

But MKO, Manitoba RCMP and Public Prosecution Service of Canada — a federal body that mainly prosecutes federal offences — have created a protocol for Mounties to charge people caught breaking public health rules on reserves, and for the prosecution service to prosecute the accused. 

"This package of laws, properly enacted and fully enforced, can be used to provide some significant tools to the First Nations during the pandemic," said Michael Anderson, MKO policing and public safety advisor, during a news conference Tuesday.

Certain sections of the Indian Act allow individual First Nations to enact bylaws for their communities, including to provide for the health of residents and prevent the spread of contagious and infectious disease on reserve.

During the pandemic, these bylaws have been used to protect residents from people entering and exiting reserves, to enact and control lockdowns, to maintain self-isolation policies, as well as preventing people who involved in illegal activities from entering and leaving the community, Anderson said.

Pimicikimak Cree Nation — also known as Cross Lake — is one dozens of Manitoba First Nations that has restricted access at times to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted First Nations people due to socio-economic issues such as crowded housing, lack of access to clean water and higher rates of chronic illness.

Those "problems are compounded when the laws intended to protect the community are not recognized, respected, enforced and prosecuted," said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee during the news conference.

But now First Nations can choose to sign an agreement with the RCMP and federal prosecution service that would allow for enforcement and prosecution of COVID-19 rule breakers.

The agreement would last until Sep. 30 unless it is renewed, said Settee.

"I am so thrilled that we have arrived at this juncture, because throughout the past year we've been getting calls from chiefs having challenges enforcing their bylaws," said Settee.

"It's a very important move toward reconciliation and working together with the province and also with the RCMP. I believe it is through collaboration that we were able to come at this point today, establishing a protocol."

'It's a choice that would be left up to them'

The RCMP is "adequately resourced" in the northern Manitoba communities where there are detachments and "well-positioned" to be able to enforce COVID-19 bylaws in northern First Nations, said Supt. Scott McMurchy, deputy criminal operations officer for Manitoba RCMP.

Many First Nations are calling to abolish the Indian Act, but the protocol announced Tuesday is not intended to support that piece of federal legislation, said Settee.

The protocol is "by no means trying to take away the sovereignty, or disrespect the autonomy of each First Nation," he said.

"It's a choice that would be left up to them. We're just providing a mechanism how they can enforce their bylaws, if they chose to do so."

There are 1,316 known active COVID-19 cases among First Nations members in Manitoba — 541 on reserve, 775 off reserve — as of Tuesday, according to a bulletin issued by the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 pandemic coordination response team.