Sask. Premier says no exceptions to public health order for First Nations ceremonies

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says should be no exceptions to the public health order against gatherings after members of a First Nation said the RCMP interrupted a sun dance ceremony on Sunday.

Members of Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation say police interrupted important ceremony

Sask. Premier Scott Moe has responded to concerns about the RCMP turning up at a traditional sun ceremony. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says there should be no exceptions to the public health order against gatherings after members of a First Nation said the RCMP interrupted a sun dance ceremony on Sunday. 

"The virus doesn't care, it just simply doesn't," said Moe at a news conference on Wednesday. 

"There are other religious and cultural gatherings that have gone to great lengths to modify their worship services, to modify their gatherings so that they may continue to occur but in a much different fashion than what they may have previously."

On Friday, organizers held a traditional sun dance at the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation, located about 80 kilometres north of Saskatoon, to pray for a cure for COVID-19.

During the event, RCMP showed up in a police cruiser and talked to officials, organizers say. Several hours later, at a sweat lodge ceremony, officers returned and said they intended to break up the ceremony.

Andre Bear, a dancer in the ceremony, said "extreme restrictions on us by the Beardy's and Okemasis chief and council" were immediately put in place in order for the ceremony to continue.

"There was a 20 person non-band member limit, they were taking everybody's temperatures, [physical] distancing was being enforced," said Bear, a law student who said he acted as a legal observer when RCMP arrived at the sun dance on Sunday.

Law student Andre Bear decided to become a lawyer following farmer Gerald Stanley's acquittal in Colten Boushie’s shooting death on Feb. 9, 2018. Bear is pictured here in the College of Law on the University of Saskatchewan campus. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

A public health order in Saskatchewan limits gatherings to a maximum of 10 people. Bear said that order infringes on protected cultural practices. 

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said the RCMP should stay off reserve land. 

"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.

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

Moe was asked Wednesday why no exemptions on the 10-person limit would be allowed. 

He said he plans to talk to Chief Cameron about working together to find a way for cultural gatherings to continue — within the limitations of the public health order. 

"The public health orders that are in place apply to everyone, quite frankly, because this virus applies — and how it spreads — also applies to, impacts and affects everyone," Moe said. 

"The public health orders do apply across this province on all of our lands."

Organizer says everyone kept their distance

Clay Sutherland, the man in charge of the ceremony, said everyone present kept their distance from each other and did their best to abide by pandemic rules.

Health officials sent organizers an email warning that there were a high number of COVID-19 cases in northern Saskatchewan and that people from the outside might bring the virus into the community. The email also noted that a public health order limited gatherings to 10 people.

In a written response, Saskatchewan RCMP acknowledged officers went out to the site twice but said they never asked for the ceremony to stop. No charges were laid.

"Our focus continues to be on educating members of the public of the potential health and enforcement consequences that can result from non-compliance with the public health order," the statement said.

with files from David Shield, Creeden Martell and the Canadian Press