We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.

A Chief’s Angry Charge: Paternalism Is Putting His People’s Lives at Risk

The view from James Smith Cree Nation amidst Saskatchewan’s coronavirus surge.

Michael Harris 1 Dec 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

Chief Wally Burns sensed right away that something was wrong. The voice on his cellphone belonged to the man who operated the community’s grader. He told Burns that he had a “wicked headache” and “terrible cough.” The man planned to do a little more work, then go home.

Burns, Chief of Saskatchewan’s James Smith Cree Nation, knew how bad things were when he received a second call that day from the same man.

The heavy equipment operator was now at home and desperately ill. But he was not calling to talk about his health. Instead, he made an urgent request of Burns. He wanted someone to go to the grader he had been operating and disinfect it at once before anyone else used it. The man had a premonition.

The caller was 58-year-old Orlen Burns, and he was right. On the same day he came home suspecting he might have the coronavirus, Burns was admitted to hospital. The diagnosis was COVID-19. At 3 a.m. last Friday morning, Burns was airlifted to Regina. Saturday morning at 10 a.m., he was put on a ventilator. Orlen Burns is the Chief’s brother.

It is a story that is being repeated across Saskatchewan First Nations, in a place that itself is experiencing a provincewide surge in COVID-19 cases. Saskatchewan has the third highest per-capita rate of pandemic-related hospitalizations in the country.

According to Indigenous Services Canada, as of Nov. 27, there were 3,524 confirmed positive cases on First Nations Reserves across Canada.

Cases on reserves have tripled, and deaths have doubled in the last month. Just this week, Saskatchewan’s chief medical officer warned that time is not on the province’s side. The latest modelling released by Dr. Saqib Shahab shows that COVID-19 cases in the province will double in the next six months.

As far as Burns is concerned, the second-wave surge has already hit James Smith Cree Nation and its 1,500 on-reserve band members. Although COVID-19 numbers were actually lower for First Nations communities than the general population at the outset of the pandemic, that picture is rapidly changing.

The number of First Nation cases in Saskatchewan has quadrupled in the last five weeks, from 212 on Oct. 21, to 956 as of Nov. 27. That is the second worst number in the nation, after Alberta’s 1,108 cases.

The situation is so bad that the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces have answered a call for help from the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nations in the far northeast of Saskatchewan. For 30 days the Canadian Rangers will provide food, firewood and car packages. They will also dispense information about personal protective health measures and risk mitigation strategies.

The emergency help comes as no surprise to Burns. “The threat in our community is very high. We’re doing contact tracing, we’ve had 25 positive tests, we have one community member in intensive care in Regina, and two others having a hard time breathing. We have traced 171 contacts, and our numbers are growing.”

The pandemic is exposing damage of another kind. Despite promises from Ottawa to empower First Nations to take more control of key decisions affecting their people, paternalistic practices by the federal government persist. Burns is one Indigenous voice among many saying people are suffering and dying as a result.

‘Where the heck is the damn action?’

When COVID-19 made headlines, recalls Burns, members of James Smith Cree Nation didn’t initially grasp how deadly the coronavirus could be. But that changed as soon as the virus began showing up on the reserve.

Burns and other leaders of his Nation implemented a lockdown, a curfew, a prohibition against visiting, and an extended school closure for 390 students.

“I tried to do my best for my nation. I am trying to protect our youth, our Elders, our knowledge-keepers, and all we get are words from regional officials at Indigenous Services Canada. To me, they are just a hindrance. I gave the other chiefs shit at the last meeting. I told them I was tired of spinning my wheels. Enough words at these weekly meetings. Where the heck is the damn action?”

The action Burns wants, he says, has been stymied by ISC — the very federal department tasked with helping First Nations meet the COVID-19 threat. Instead, says Burns, ISC has stood in the way of his people’s attempts to formulate their own response and carry it through.

Since May 15, James Smith Cree Nation has forwarded nine pandemic-related proposals to ISC, with little success.

Faced with overcrowded classrooms, for example, the nation made a proposal to increase classroom space with trailers. “They looked at it, nothing came of it. Every week at meetings they say it’s still in the works,” Burns said.

A key issue for Burns has been obtaining personal protective equipment for everyone on the reserve who might be exposed to the virus as they go about their responsibilities. He’s been on the case now for six months.

The core proposal, submitted on May 15, 2020, was for a consolidated order of PPE, in which James Smith Cree Nation and its business partners would stockpile the necessary supplies to fight COVID-19 for all 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. The initial cost was $157 million.

The proposal from James Smith Cree Nation was supported by five regional Assembly of First Nations chiefs, Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte of Prince Albert Grand Council, as well as the Dene National Chief, Norman Yakeleya.

When contacted by The Tyee, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, endorsed the proposals made by Burns and James Smith Cree Nation.

“They have their act together,” Bellegarde said. “They know what they’re doing. My job is to keep putting pressure on all the people in the system to listen, including the various ministers. I talk with them all the time. That is the key; keeping up the pressure. The problem now is not just getting approvals, but getting them in a timely way.”

Here is how Burns expressed his frustrations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an Oct. 20, 2020, email: “We are desperate to protect the well-being of our communities and COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan are increasing. We have pushed for six months for basic support and have received nothing.”

Instead, says Burns, his Nation has endured degrading treatment from ISC. He was incensed when an executive officer of ISC in Saskatchewan told the nation to make its own masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and create jobs. “Not only was this insulting,” the Chief wrote, “it’s racist. We are a nation of doctors and lawyers and professionals and trades people, we are not a nation of arts and crafts.”

On another occasion, Burns was directed by ISC to make changes to one of his proposals to produce and stockpile PPE for his people. He complied with the direction and sent the proposal in by the Friday deadline set by ISC. When there was no response, the Chief contacted ISC only to find that the official he had been working with had gone on annual leave.

He registered his dissatisfaction in an email:

“Just following up to see what’s going on with our proposal and the email I sent out Friday. We have a lot of people getting sick and we are running out of PPE. This sounds like genocide when things aren’t happening. We can’t wait much longer and have our people in a vulnerable state. A lot of frustration and emotions happening because of this virus. Let us know. And I dunno why you didn’t let me or Chief Cameron know that you were taking annual leave. Would have been nice to know.”

Driven by frustration at the regional level, Burns has written not just to Trudeau but everyone else he could think of to get the help he believes is a treaty right, not a handout.

And not just help, but the right to administer their own program with their own partners.

Burns contacted ministers, the Governor General and he even emailed the Queen. With a few exceptions, his exertions were largely without consequence for several, critical months.

“I emailed the leader of the opposition and the leader of the NDP. Jagmeet Singh replied that he would push our initiative in the House of Commons. I emailed the prime minister. Nothing.”

‘Why didn’t Canada do that?’

Meanwhile, with the schools closed, and severe restrictions on socializing, James Smith Cree Nation is now doing its best to keep its children busy.

“We’re buying a bunch of toys and puzzles. And how strange is this? The Rio Tinto diamond mine, which is four kilometres away from us, gave our kids laptops. Those were the people who helped, the corporate people. Why didn’t Canada do that?”

When asked if he thought Trudeau had honoured his commitment to bring truth and reconciliation to the First Nations file, which the PM has always said is his top priority, Burns didn’t mince words.

“I don’t think the prime minister really honoured anything. He hasn’t done anything. I went to a gathering where First Nations gave Trudeau a fine war bonnet and nice jacket. Now they want it back.”

On Aug. 12, four months after Burns and fellow First Nation leaders requested direct funding so they could manage their own PPE and other pandemic resource needs, ISC Minister Marc Miller announced the federal government would be spending $305 million for pandemic assistance to First Nations.

For Burns, the devil was in the bureaucratic details — which he believed insured the federal government was going to deprive him and his nation of control over fighting the pandemic the way they saw fit.

That same day he sent a letter to Miller denouncing ISC for reneging on past promises, and putting First Nations through administrative hoops he would never impose on the head of an organized union, trade association, or municipal region:

“I am writing to you regarding your announcement of today of $305 million for pandemic assistance to First Nations. You are very well aware of what your announcement of today does to our efforts to purchase, manage and distribute PPE for our people.”

Today, Burns says shortage of PPE on the reserve prove his fears justified. And he remains committed to a vow he made to Miller in his letter. “We will NOT allow a genocide to occur in our Nations as a result of this pandemic.”

For his part, ISC Miller painted a very different picture of Ottawa’s response to the impact of COVID-19 in First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities. In a letter to Burns sent Sept. 29, 2020, Miller acknowledged that First Nations governments were “best placed” to develop community-based solutions.

That said, all efforts had to be a “partnership” with ISC, provincial and territorial governments and other health partners. Miller pointed out that Ottawa had provided “more than $154 million” to Saskatchewan First Nations, and announced a further $305 million to support Indigenous people nationally, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burns claims not nearly enough of that money has been directed at solving basic pandemic issues on his reserve. Take for example, a batch of blue tents purchased by ISC and sent to the James Smith Cree Nation.

The tents, ISC said, were for either treating or isolating band members after exposure to COVID-19. Burns considered the tents completely lacking in the necessary outfitting to suit those tasks. When he tried to raise his objections with federal bureaucrats, he had the impression that he was being put down.

“In a meeting with ISC, a regional director interrupted me, talked over me, and told me it was her turn to talk and that because she had listened to me, I had to listen to her and implied that it was an imposition to listen to our concerns.”

The blue tents episode stands for an overall failure by ISC to communicate respectfully and constructively, Burns says. “We weren’t consulted — a real piss off. Seventy-four First Nations, and we have one-third of the population, and we get a total lack of communication. What a waste of money those tents are. They are just big body bags. None of my people wants to be put in one of those tents. I’m hearing other First Nations are giving them back.”

Haunted by history

Canada’s sad record when it comes to the medical well-being of Indigenous Peoples does not reassure Burns in the current circumstances. He points out in the 1930s and 1940s, native children at residential schools were dying of tuberculosis at “the highest death rate of any population” in the country, 700 per 100,000.

Nor does the Chief forget that in 2009, his First Nations brothers in Manitoba were eagerly awaiting medical supplies to fight a major flu outbreak. Along with other supplies, Health Canada sent them body-bags. Burns has an enduring personal memory from the days of fighting the H1N1 virus.

“When it was over, they told us to put our stockpile of PPE in a container. But over the years, condensation got inside masks and half of them were ruined by mould. They didn’t replace them.”

All of those memories are set against an array of disadvantages that First Nations face at the best of times — poor housing, limited health-care access, dubious drinking water, lack of social services and shocking wealth gaps between mainstream and Indigenous populations.

Now, despite ISC Miller’s claims of “partnership,” Burns remains unconvinced of Ottawa’s good faith.

“I don’t think they ever even looked at my proposals. None of those proposals were looked at it. Now that we got COVID cases, they really changed. But it’s still their way, not our way. They say, ‘We gotta make this Chief happy, we’re tired of getting bitched at by him.’ The truth is, they should have done this six months ago. They could have stopped this whole thing six months ago. It’s too little too late.”

While Miller looks at the world from 30,000 feet, as most federal ministers do, Burns sees things from the ground level in his besieged community. He is worried about his sister-in-law in the taxi business, because she hasn’t got PPE. Now a recent customer of hers has tested positive for COVID-19.

He is worried about his community’s head nurse, Rey Lindan, because she is running out of N95 masks just at the time when more testing needs to be done.

He’s worried about his frontline workers because they don’t have enough gowns, or cleaning solution or Plexiglas shields. And he’s worried about that grader-operator far away in Regina in the ICU.

“My brother Orlen is in a coma now. The doctor asked his wife to sign the papers not to resuscitate. She took it pretty hard,” the Chief said, his voice trailing off into silence.  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Do not:

  •  Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully, threaten, name-call or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, downvote, or flag suspect activity
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls and flag violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Stay on topic
  • Connect with each other


The Barometer

Tyee Poll: Do You Think a Non-Essential Travel Ban Should Be Enforced in BC?

Take this week's poll