'Disrespectful and threatening treatment': Northern Sask. leaders say COVID-19 checkpoints fraught with issues
SASKATOON -- Some Indigenous leaders in northern Saskatchewan say that the province's COVID-19 checkpoints in the north “have gone too far," alleging “unfair and disrespectful treatment" from officers.
Travel restrictions were put in place by the provincial government in April because of the COVID-19 outbreak in La Loche, and infection in northern communities.
In a statement released by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) on Tuesday, Canoe Lake Cree First Nation Chief Francis Iron said he was denied access through a checkpoint while travelling for essential reasons.
“It disturbs me that the north is being discriminated against and treated unfairly. We were not consulted despite what the provincial health order states,” he said in the release.
Earlier this month Premier Scott Moe said conservation officers would be deployed to staff checkpoints to help enforce the travel restrictions
“These officers have free interpretation of the public health order and a complete lack of respect towards the leadership of the north,” Iron said.
The Canoe Lake chief said he was turned back while driving to Flying Dust First Nation near Meadow Lake on official business to authorize payroll and social assistance payments for members of his community.
In an interview with CTV News, Iron said there are zero cases of COVID-19 in his community—something they’re very proud of.
He alleges that an officer at a checkpoint acted in a “disrespectful manner altogether."
"Wouldn’t let me talk,” he said “I tried to explain myself and he just kept cutting me off and exercising his authority, saying ‘This is a health order, turn around and go home’, just wouldn’t let me say my piece at all.”
Iron says some families in his community rely on social assistance, and if he can’t get through checkpoints, they won’t be able to get cheques to pay their bills.
“We don’t want to fight, we want to make sure that we work with the provincial government for the safety of everyone.”
A letter of complaint about the check-stops was sent to Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab, the FSIN said in its release.
English River First Nation Chief Jerry Bernard said he has also witnessed problems at the checkpoints first hand.
“This public health order is also restricting essential services to our community. We strongly believe that shopping for groceries in Meadow Lake is essential for our communities because there are shortages of goods and services all over the north and we are being forced into positions that make our communities even more vulnerable," Bernard said in the FSIN news release.
"My community members are being threatened to be charged by officers if on their ‘essential trip,’ they try to bring groceries back through the security checkpoints. This ignorant, disrespectful and threatening treatment must stop immediately.”
Nick Daigneault, the mayor of Beauval, Saskatchewan, says there are two checkpoints on Highway 155 South of his village.
“We’re kind of confused as to why, on one small stretch of highway, there are two checkpoints,” he said. “We’ve asked questions like ‘Why are people being turned away when they want to go harvest?'."
Daigneault says the travel restrictions on the North are causing frustration, especially with the province going ahead with the Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan.
“They’re basically telling us, ‘No, stay in your northern zone, you’re not part of the reopening’, so it’s hard not to take it as an insult,” he said.
“You might as well re-label it ‘Re-Open Southern Saskatchewan,' because we’re obviously not feeling included.”
The FSIN says they’re giving their full support to the Meadow Lake Tribal Council and the Metis Nation - Saskatchewan regarding the issue.
“We are encouraging all levels of government – federal, provincial, local, First Nations and Metis, to work with one another and implement our recommendations as we see fit” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron in the release.
“We support the northern communities and the leadership on their recommendations to stop the spread of COVID-19. We have positive solutions that will help the whole province and flatten the curve.”
In an emailed statement the Government of Saskatchewan said its aware of the concerns, and will continue to work with Indigenous and community leaders.
“We recognize that these travel restrictions represent a substantial disruption to the lives of residents in the North or others that are seeking to access property,” the statement said.
“However, these restrictions were imposed to restrict the spread of COVID-19 stemming from the outbreak in northwest Saskatchewan by restricting travel with limited exceptions, and are being upheld to fulfill that purpose.”
Meadow Lake Tribal Council Tribal Chief Richard Ben says he agrees with the province’s check-stops when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19, but not the way measures are being enforced.
“People there have to grocery shop,” he said. “They have to get their essentials, their foods, their services, their medicines, and they’re getting turned away or threatened that they can’t come back.”