Chief says Manitoba First Nation going ahead with powwow despite public health orders

A Manitoba chief says his community will hold its annual powwow next month even if provincial public-health orders continue to limit the size of public gatherings.

Chief says he believes powwow will bring healing during time of stress, isolation

Lake Manitoba First Nation Chief Cornell McLean says his community will go ahead with their annual powwow despite limits on public gathering sizes under Manitoba's current COVID-19 public health orders. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

A Manitoba chief says his community will hold its annual powwow next month even if provincial public health orders continue to limit the size of public gatherings.

"It is our culture," Lake Manitoba First Nation Chief Cornell McLean said.

Thousands of people usually travel across the country to dance and reconnect during the powwow season. This year, most traditional gatherings have been cancelled or delayed over concerns about the novel coronavirus or due to restrictions on how many people can gather.

Lake Manitoba was one of the first reserves in the province to restrict travel in and out of the community two months ago, and many other First Nations followed. McLean said there have been no cases of COVID-19 in the region.

It has been difficult for many residents of the community about 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg as they deal with the stress of isolation, financial strain and concern over their families, McLean said; some have turned to alcohol or drugs.

He believes the powwow that is being organized will bring healing.

"It's important because we are trying to start that healing process for our members."

There have been 292 cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba; however, the number of infections has stagnated over the last few weeks. Wednesday was the fifth consecutive day without a new case and there were only 14 active cases.

Social distancing powwow

McLean and his council watched as the provincial government began to loosen restrictions this month. He said they decided to move forward with the powwow next month when the limit on outdoor gatherings was increased to 50 people.

"We will make sure that social distancing is being followed," said the chief.

Anyone who is not feeling well should not attend the June 19-21 event, he said.

"We won't have people standing arm in arm, that's for sure, but we will find a way to make it work for our community."

McLean did not say how many people are expected to take part in the powwow. Outside of community members, people from four nearby First Nations are likely to come, he said.

Organizers will be watching what happens with provincial public health orders and will decide if there needs to be a limit on attendance, but there won't be fewer than 100 people, McLean said.

The First Nation may get criticized for holding the powwow, but McLean said the federal government has made it clear that Indigenous ceremonies won't be stopped during the pandemic.

"Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said earlier this month after RCMP were sent to a sun dance ceremony in Saskatchewan.

Any decision to cancel or postpone cultural practices remains up to community leadership, Indigenous services spokesperson Martine Stevens said in an email. First Nations leaders and ceremonial organizers are given information about COVID-19 public health measures.

Manitoba Health said Indigenous ceremonies need to follow current public health recommendations. The department said it will work with First Nations to provide public health guidance.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said governments and First Nations need to be flexible to ensure traditions are maintained while keeping people safe.

"Everyone is super sensitive to the reality of what we are dealing with in the time of this pandemic," he said.

The assembly is in constant contact with the province's chief public health officer and the federal government, Dumas said. First Nations are being advised to remain vigilant and look out for one another.

Manitoba chiefs acted quickly to keep communities safe when it was clear COVID-19 was spreading, Dumas said, and they continue to do what's best for their communities now that Manitoba is taking steps to reopen.

"We aren't going to be able to isolate ourselves forever, so how do we start living with this thing?"