'The virus doesn’t care': Sask. premier says no public health exceptions will be made for Indigenous ceremonies
SASKATOON -- Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says no exceptions will be given to the public health orders for ceremonies planned in First Nations.
The premier said at a news conference Wednesday that the provincial orders limiting gathering to no more than 10 people extends to those communities.
“Because the virus doesn’t care. The public health orders that are in place, they need to be followed for the health and safety of everyone.”
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Some members of Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Natio claim a sacred Sun Dance ceremony was interrupted by RCMP on Sunday.
Organizer Clay Sutherland told CTV the ceremony had the blessing from the First Nations' chief and council, and physical distancing protocols were followed during the three-day ceremony.
Chief and council members also took temperatures of anyone participating in the Sun Dance and officials limited the number of people allowed to participate, he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that government needs to work with Indigenous communities to figure out ways traditional customs and practices can continue amid public health restrictions.
“Indigenous community leaderships know that we need to be keeping people safe and we need to work with them to develop ways of continuing with important customs and practices for them in a way that abides by health recommendations,” Trudeau said in his daily update from Ottawa.
“I think that’s something for the leadership of the community to take on and we of course will be happy to work with them.”
In a news release the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) executive supported any First Nation community choosing to conduct traditional cultural ceremonies, while practicing safety through social distancing protocols.
“We will practice our traditional First Nations ceremonies as we see fit. Our FSIN executive are in full support of any First Nation community that chooses to participate or practice their traditional spiritual ways,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron in a news release.
“We don’t need anyone telling us we won’t be allowed to conduct ceremonies.”
Ottawa says decision to hold, cancel ceremony is up to community leadership alone
In a statement, Indigenous Services Canada said it was made aware of the Sun Dance ceremony at Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation. While ISC officials did not attend, they responded to a formal complaint submitted to the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).
“Indigenous Services Canada contacted the leadership of Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation to discuss precautions that could be taken as well as the provincial public health order in place surrounding gatherings over more than 10 people,” ISC said in the statement.
ISC said it was provided assurance from the leadership that Sun Dance organizers had precautions in place to reduce the risk and transmission of COVID-19.
“ISC maintain regular communications with First Nations leaders across Saskatchewan and have committed to developing jointly, a more culturally responsive process to support communities in cultural gatherings,” the ministry said.
Any decision to cancel or postpone these types of cultural practices remain the decision of community leadership alone, ISC said.
Indigenous Services Minister says banning sacred ceremonies is a "dark stain" on the country's history and they will be allowed to continue despite restrictions put in place due to COVID-19.
"Even in the face of a historic pandemic, Canada must not and will not prohibit these important practices," Marc Miller said Thursday.
Moe on 'sound ground'
Ken Norman, a professor with the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan, said the courts will presumptively treat provincial laws as valid, unless their primary objective targets “Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians" — as the legal terminolgy puts it.
“Premier Scott Moe has sound ground to stand on in asserting that Saskatchewan’s emergency public health order limiting gatherings to 10 people is applicable to all such activities including on a reserve,” Norman said.
“That said, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is displaying some wisdom in the spirit of reconciliation in trusting First Nations’ leadership to decide how to keep their members safe while conducting such ceremonies ‘in a way that abides by health recommendations’ of the province.
Norman said the two levels of government are providing a way forward for First Nations to ensure that social distancing is practiced while ceremonies are conducted.
With files from The Canadian Press