Inaccurate, unfair for Sask. premier to single out northern First Nations on vaccination, say critics

In a social media video posted Thursday, Premier Scott Moe said Far North and Indigenous communities "are running at a vaccination rate of less than 50 per cent." Critics say he's wrong to single out northern First Nations when many non-Indigenous communities have lower rates.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Marc Miller calls Premier Scott Moe's comments "alarming and unproductive"

Saskatchewan's COVID-19 vaccination rates are among the lowest in Canada. Premier Scott Moe singled out northern First Nations for their low uptake, but critics say this divisive attitude is both unfair and inaccurate. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is wrong to single out northern First Nations for low COVID-19 vaccination rates, say critics.

They say Moe's comments, which were made on Tuesday and then posted to social media Thursday—as well as similar to statements he made last week—are both unfair and inaccurate.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Marc Miller called Moe's comments "alarming and unproductive." In an online reply, Miller said Moe has a "misunderstanding of his own health care system and the role it plays" in northern Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan Opposition leader Ryan Meili said the premier is desperate to deflect blame for the province's rapidly deteriorating COVID-19 situation.

"This is gross, just dog-whistle politics, trying to blame one part of the province. He's trying to shift attention away from his own errors," Meili said Thursday.

"He should be apologizing for his inaction, which is resulting in people dying."

Record numbers of COVID-19 patients, most of them unvaccinated, are filling the province's hospitals and intensive care units. Elective procedures have been slowed down or paused altogether, but the surge in COVID-19 cases is also halting organ transplants as well as certain brain, heart and eye procedures.

On Thursday, Moe posted a video on social media saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was practising "divisiveness" by singling out Saskatchewan for its low vaccination rate.

Moe then went on to single out parts of Saskatchewan on the same issue.

"Our far north and Indigenous communities are running at a vaccination rate of less than 50 per cent — an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction," Moe tweeted. "I hope … [Trudeau] will work with Saskatchewan to increase the vaccination rate in these critical communities right away."

Some places only have 12% uptake

The premier also singled out northern First Nations during a news conference last week.

While it appears some non-First Nations communities have much lower vaccination rates than the provincial average, Moe didn't criticize those areas for their vaccination rates.

At a presentation to Swift Current city council last week, posted on social media, a delegation of local doctors talked about the low vaccine uptake in certain towns.

"In places in southwest Saskatchewan, we only have 12 per cent uptake of the vaccine. Twelve per cent. That's it. We need the numbers of immunizations to increase," Dr. Tara Lee told councillors.

As of Thursday, 81.4 per cent of eligible people province-wide had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 72.7 per cent had two, according to CBC's vaccine tracker.

That's currently the lowest rate in Canada.

'Southwest needs to ramp it up': physician

The Ministry of Health declined to provide vaccination rates for individual towns or cities in central and southern Saskatchewan. It is reported only by zone, which typically contains a mix of city, town and rural areas.

"We do not report by community," stated a Ministry of Health email.

Gull Lake family physician Dr. Clare Kozroski, who was part of the delegation that spoke in Swift Current, says the situation is urgent.

There are individual high schools in the region with student vaccination rates of just 20 per cent, she said in a Thursday interview.

"There is no other way to deal with this fourth wave. All of our beds in ICU in this area are full, so people with other illnesses can't be cared for. The southwest needs to ramp it up," said Kozroski, who also represents Saskatchewan on the board of the Canadian Medical Association.

'No idea why he'd be singling us out'

While Moe referred to the Far North as "an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction," Meili said the premier is either confused or is being dishonest. The northern jurisdiction is in fact a mix of First Nations, federal and provincial staff working together.

Longtime Lac la Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson agreed. She says her staff has worked closely with the Saskatchewan Health Authority and federal officials throughout the pandemic.

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson says the Lac La Ronge Indian Band is working hard to contain COVID-19, but it's not accurate or helpful when the premier singles out northern communities on the vaccine issue. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

She said she saw Moe's social media posts and video and said while everyone in Saskatchewan should redouble vaccination efforts, the premier's comments are not helpful.

"I think it's very unfair, especially since non-First Nation communities in the south have lower [vaccination] rates," Cook-Searson said.

"I have no idea why he'd be singling us out. He can pick up the phone any time and call us. It's not fair to be blaming. We should find a way to work together and get past this pandemic."

Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation Chief Bart Tsannie said his community is working around the clock to help people get vaccinated. After suffering a severe outbreak in June, there is now only one active case in the community of 1,300 people.

"Don't target us. Come talk to us," Tsannie said.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said Moe should focus on keeping people safe rather than finding others to blame.

"It's not a respectful thing to do," Cameron said.

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