Saskatchewan First Nations have made a $120 million US request to Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to build up their own personal protective equipment stockpiles in preparation for a second wave of COVID-19, according to the chief of a community which led the development of the plan.
James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said his community, in partnership with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has lined up a supplier to provide all First Nations in the province with surgical masks, gloves and sanitizer, but said ISC has been noncommittal about the proposal.
Burns said First Nations can't rely exclusively on the federal government's personal protective equipment (PPE) supply because it has been beset by a litany of problems, including failed shipments and shortages that have flared throughout the first months of the pandemic.
"We have to make sure our people are looked after in regards to their wellbeing as a person, and we have to protect those in need," said Burns.
"I want to know why Canada can't say they're helping us, buying or partnering with a company to purchase PPE.… It's harmful."
According to the proposal, FSIN is seeking $120 million US over six months to build up a stockpile of 19 million surgical masks, 58.4 million gloves, 170,000 face shields, 180,000 gowns and 146,000 litres of hand sanitizer.
The supplies would be distributed to communities to prepare for the reopening of provincial economies and the expected second wave of the pandemic.
Burns said a proposal from FSIN was sent to Indigenous Services (ISC) about a week ago. He said time is ticking to line up the supplies before events overtake the communities.
"Time is of the essence, in regards to the whole pandemic. Time is not going to stand still," said Burns, whose community has recorded one COVID-19 case to date.
Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for ISC's First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, said the department has already funded one PPE proposal for about $2.2 million through FSIN and a partner community for PPE purchased through a private supplier.
Gideon said the Saskatchewan regional office had requested further "clarity" from the FSIN on the proposal.
"We are receptive, absolutely, to receiving funding requests from communities in that regard, or First Nations organizations that receive a mandate," said Gideon, during a technical briefing Friday afternoon.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the department works with communities on a "case-by-case" basis when it comes to First Nations seeking to secure their own supply of PPE.
"It's a question of financing and support, but that's an ongoing dialogue that we're having internally," said Miller, during a news conference Friday morning.
"The question will become even more important ... as provinces open up and PPE starts being used for other uses other than medical frontline work and issues of scarcity obviously will arise."
Tom Wong, ISC's chief medical officer, said the department is currently supplying First Nations with PPE for health service related functions and to those who are providing health care to family members.
Chief says treaty's medicine chest clause needs to be respected
Burns said the federal government has a treaty obligation to provide funding for the proposal under the pestilence and medicine chest clauses in some of the numbered treaties, including Treaty 6 which covers James Smith Cree Nation territory.
He appealed directly to Queen Elizabeth in a letter requesting she intervene under the treaties signed by her representatives. The Queen responded in a May 6 letter written by her deputy correspondence co-ordinator, Jennie Vine, that Burns should reach out to Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette and federal ministers with his request.
"Nevertheless, the Queen sends her warm good wishes to you and your people during this current situation," said the letter.
Burns then followed up with a letter to Payette requesting her office engage with his community on the issue.
"Our peoples have been hit by an unforeseen event that was contemplated at the time of the treaty making," said Burns, in a letter to Gov.-Gen. Julie Payette.
Burns said the treaty relationship is a living, breathing commitment requiring Canada to continually hold up its end of the deal.
Payette's office did not respond to a request for comment.