Manitoba First Nation proposal to repurpose youth centre as field hospital passed over for temporary shelters

Mathias Colomb Cree Nation is wondering why the federal government ignored their community's proposal for an emergency COVID-19 response space in favour of a Calgary company's. 

Contract to construct temporary field hospital given to Calgary-based firm

Calgary company Dynamic Air Shelters was awarded a federal contract to build an emergency field hospital in Pukatawagan, Man. (Dynamic Air Shelters)

A northern Manitoba First Nation is wondering why the federal government ignored their community's proposal for an emergency COVID-19 response space in favour of a Calgary company's. 

Chief and council of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (MCCN) say they were not involved in the process leading up to the awarding of a contract to Dynamic Air Shelters to build an emergency field hospital in preparation for a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the community. 

Moving forward, chief and council are hoping for an open dialogue with Indigenous Services Canada.

"We're not saying no to their suggestions and proposal, they're looking out for us and we're grateful for what they've done," said Chief Lorna Bighetty.

"But it would be better for them to talk to us first."

Their community of Pukatawagan has a population of 2,300 and is 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. There is no year-round road access but it is accessible by railway from The Pas.

Bighetty said the government stepped in because they realized the community didn't have the capacity at the nursing station to handle a possible outbreak. The nursing station has five examination rooms and one holding room, and Bighetty said it is understaffed and unable to meet the demand at the best of times. 

She said chief and council have been advocating for an expansion of the nursing station since last year.

There have been no cases of COVID-19 in Pukatawagan, but for the last two months the community has been locked down and making preparations in case of an outbreak. 

Community proposed finishing construction on centre 

On April 15, an MCCN band employee received an email from a British Columbia-based architecture firm that informed them the federal government was accepting proposals from companies to manufacture and deliver structures for a temporary field hospital.

The following week MCCN put together a formal proposal to complete their 6,000-square foot youth centre, which is under construction, and outfit it as an emergency shelter and response space. 

"We started the construction in November and we were 90 per cent complete right up to the point where COVID hit and it was a lockdown," said Councillor Ralph Caribou.

He said the chief and council saw their proposal as more cost effective and believed it would provide a more rapid response if the virus came into the community. 

Part of MCCN's proposal would see the construction company that had been working on the youth centre brought back to the community but isolated in their own camp that would be attached to the facility. 

The crew would be tested prior to entering the community and have their temperature checked every morning and night. 

"It's only two to three weeks to complete it," said Caribou.

All the needed resources like a medical facility, quarantine areas and accommodation for the medical team could be in the one building, added Caribou. 

The youth centre could also serve as a regional facility for the nearby communities of Granville Lake and Sherridon in Manitoba, and Sandy Bay in Saskatchewan.

MCCN said they did not receive any feedback from Indigenous Services Canada about their proposal and on May 3, found out through an article published by CBC News that the contract had been awarded to Dynamic Air Shelters.

"We were very surprised at how the information was released to the whole world and Pukatawagan was not aware of the planning process that Canada was doing," said Councillor Shirley Castel. 

She said when MCCN found out about the contract they were "surprised, baffled and angry" because there wasn't any consultation with the community. 

Tenders not being made public

In an emailed statement, PSPC said that "given the unprecedented needs that have arisen as we face COVID-19, an urgent and accelerated timeline for contracting has been required in certain cases."

It said that in this case a "National Security Exception" was invoked. The Request for Proposal (RFP) was not published on its website for public tenders and was instead sent only to a list of known suppliers.

"Many PSPC procurements related to the COVID-19 response are being done under National Security Exception (NSE). Such solicitation documents are not publicly available," the statement said.

"Indigenous businesses have the full support of the federal government and we will continue to work with all partners to increase access to future opportunities."

Late Friday, ISC said in an emailed statement that a discussion had happened April 24 with MCCN about infrastructure to support their COVID-19 preparedness.

"The department has since held two discussions with the community on May 5 and 6 relating to options for surge infrastructure which included upgrading existing facilities in the community to meet the immediate needs related to COVID-19, while also supporting the longer-term infrastructure priorities of the community," said the statement. 

ISC said it has commited $353,000 for upgrades to the youth centre.