Saskatoon

Decisions about Indigenous ceremonies lie with community leaders, says Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has responded to concerns about police attending a traditional ceremony at a Saskatchewan First Nation over compliance with a public health order, for which Premier Scott Moe says there should be no exceptions. 

Sask. Premier Scott Moe says there should be no exceptions to 10-person limit on gatherings

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during his daily news conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Thursday May 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has responded to concerns about police attending a traditional ceremony at a Saskatchewan First Nation over compliance with a public health order, for which Premier Scott Moe says there should be no exceptions. 

"I think Indigenous community leadership knows that we need to be keeping people safe and we should be able to work with them to develop ways of continuing with important customs and practices for them in a way that abides by health recommendations," said Trudeau. 

"I think that's something for the leadership of the community to take on and we of course would be happy to work with them."

The number of people at the ceremony at Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation last weekend exceeded the limit of 10 put in place through a provincial public health order. 

No charges were laid but people at the event said the RCMP had interrupted a sacred ceremony. Organizers said they took precautions including social distancing and temperature testing.

Ceremonies will not be prohibited: Indigenous Services Minister

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said banning Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices is "a dark stain on Canada's history."

"I want to ensure everyone listening that even in the face of a historic pandemic Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices," said Miller. 

"Any decision to cancel or postpone these events is a decision that is solely at the discretion of the community's leadership."

Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Leslie Michelson said in a statement Thursday ISC encourages First Nations leaders to consider public health guidelines in their respective provinces and territories.

Michelson said ISC contacted the leadership of Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation after a formal complaint about the ceremony was submitted to the Saskatchewan Health Authority. 

ISC was assured that precautions were taken and Michelson said it respects the measures put in place. 

Premier Moe said in response that there should be no exemptions to the public health order. 

'Simply cannot' be exceptions: Sask. Premier

"With respect to the comments of the Minister as well as Indigenous Services themselves around these particular events being exempt from public health orders, that simply cannot be the case," said Moe at a news conference in Regina on Thursday. 

"The reason these public health orders are in place is so that we are able to flatten the curve so that the provincially delivered health care system can manage the health care needs that may be coming at it due to COVID as well as the other needs." 

Moe said the public health order applies to everyone in Saskatchewan, adding that all of the province's residents use the provincially-delivered healthcare system if they are sick. 

The Premier said he has spoken to Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron to initiate discussions with health officials about how ceremonies could continue within the limitations of the public health orders. 

"There is no guarantee that we can come up with that set of parameters but we should try and we should attempt to do that collectively," said Moe. 

The FSIN declined to comment Thursday, saying it would no longer be discussing First Nations ceremonies due to their sacred nature. 

"Out of respect for our knowledge keepers and elders, we will not comment any further," it said in an email. 

Cameron previously said that public health orders do not supersede First Nations law and treaties, adding that maintaining tradition and ceremony is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our ceremonies, our sun dances, our sweat lodges, our pipe ceremonies will continue and no matter what any government or what the RCMP may try to say or do, those ways are going to continue," Cameron told the Canadian Press.

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