Kenney’s catastrophic failure in dealing with COVID is not the fault of Indigenous people

Jason Kenney continued his bad habit of blaming others for his catastrophic mishandling of the third wave of this pandemic by making racist, “anti-indigenous” comments regarding vaccinations in northern Alberta on April 26th

Instead of focusing on anti-lockdown protests, the out-of-control spread of the virus in oilsands work camps, and the huge influx of workers from other provinces for turnaround season, Kenney instead tried to manufacture an image of Indigenous people wasting vaccines in large numbers. “The population up there is disproportionately Indigenous, as you know we have a much lower age eligibility for vaccinations for that First Nations population,” said Kenney; “...there has every day been a significant amount of unused supply.” 

These comments paint a picture of First Nations people being wasteful with precious vaccines. And using the word “disproportionate” to describe a large population of Indigenous people is incredibly problematic—make no mistake these talking points are meant to sow further anti-Indigenous sentiments in rural areas.

But should we be surprised? The Premier, even prior to gaining office in 2019, showed a very narrow understanding of First Nations in Alberta, our Treaties and the obligations attached therein. In 2018, Kenney said that large swaths of crown land in northern Alberta, which he sought to auction off, were “not land in a reserve or Treaty area – it’s Crown land.” It was a remarkable admission that he has no understanding of Crown land, the Treaties, or the basic reality of Alberta’s existence: Treaty No. 8 stretches across the entire north of this province into British Columbia, the North West Territories and a corner of Saskatchewan.

A government of Canada map from 1900. The red outline shows Treaty 8 territory. 

The Premier doesn’t just suffer from ignorance. He steeps himself in it. Kenney infamously employed a speechwriter, Paul Bunner, who called residential schools a “bogus genocide story.” Although Bunner later “retired,” Kenney’s hesitancy to just fire him is an indication of how unseriously he takes the issue of Indigenous genocide.

While outbreaks were happening in other rural communities across the prairies, namely Mackenzie County, there was little comment or concern from Kenney. When cases were spiking in northeast Calgary, the Premier pointed the finger at the South Asian community. In the early days of COVID, there were outbreaks in meat-packing plants which disproportionately affected Filipino workers who were then blamed by leaders for spreading the virus by living communally and commuting to work together. That outbreak then spread to First Nations communities in southern Alberta. These outbreaks devastated elders and knowledge keepers, erasing generations of history and wisdom.

To diminish his failures Jason Kenney is “othering” the ill and the dead. First Nations in Alberta are very experienced with this tactic—many small prairie towns and villages are fraught with an us vs them mentality. It’s a mentality built upon anti-Indigenous sentiments and ignorance of Treaty rights, and one that provides a breeding ground for settler revisionism. He others us, stoking hostility towards Indigenous people, to deflect anger and distrust away from himself and his administration. And that administration has led Alberta to disaster after disaster throughout this pandemic, including the spread on First Nations reserves. 

Alberta has the highest amount of COVID-19 cases on First Nations reserves in the country. Not per capita, raw numbers. As of April 27 Indigenous Services Canada was aware of 26,983 confirmed positive COVID-19 on First Nations reserves. The breakdown by province shows just how much Jason Kenney has failed to keep Indigenous people safe during this public health emergency:

  • British Columbia: 2,961
  • Alberta: 7,682
  • Saskatchewan: 6,553
  • Manitoba: 7,221
  • Ontario: 1,864
  • Quebec: 692
  • Atlantic: 10

This is a failure at the highest level to fulfill a government’s basic duty, keep us safe.  

The harmful and patently untrue myth about First Nations people wasting vaccines plays into  age old tropes of First Nations people as a burden on white society. These made-up anti-Indigenous fantasies Kenney is spinning are also detached from the reality of the vaccine roll-out in our communities. For instance, in my community of Swan River First Nation, there were multiple incidents of non-Indigenous people fitting the province’s vaccine categories receiving the vaccine at our Health Centre well before members of the First Nation. There are countless stories of office workers and others in our communities, who are “disproportionately” non-Indigenous people, being vaccinated well before the poorest and most in need.

One of the most fundamental provisions of the Treaties concerns the responsibility of the Crown to provide access to medicines and health care. And so some leaders evoked the Medicine Chest Clause of Treaty No. 6 near the beginning of the pandemic when their communities were hardest hit—but the response fell short on all sides. Although initial resources and support were given, which allowed communities to protect themselves and restrict travel during the first wave, the reality that reserves and communities are not islands became apparent very quickly. Members had to leave in order to work and to get supplies and services which brought the virus back into the community 

Ongoing displacement, erasure and eradication of Indigenous people for the benefit of the majority is as Albertan as Treaty denial, truck nuts and anti-lockdown superspreader rallies. Kenney’s racist and anti-Indigenous lies about First Nations people and vaccines continue the trend of him blaming everyone but himself for his catastrophic handling of this pandemic. Alberta needs responsible leadership—the kind that is accountable for its own failures. Instead, in a desperate attempt to deflect the blame, the Premier is repeating and reinforcing the same foundation of lies that Alberta and Canada have abused to displace First Nations for a century.