NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa said he felt the premier showed a "lack of respect" and compassion for Indigenous people when he accused the representative for Kiiwetinoong of jumping the queue for a COVID-19 vaccine.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford to apologize for his comments, saying Mamakwa did the right thing by getting a vaccine at the request of local leadership to combat vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities. The issue dominated the conversation at Queen's Park on Thursday, with one opposition leader being moved to tears while speaking about it.
"That was one of our highest priorities, to go into the 31 fly-in communities. Not only did Ornge fly in, but the member flew in too to get his vaccine, so thank you for doing that and kind of jumping the line. I talked to a few chiefs that were pretty upset about that, for flying into a community that he doesn’t belong to, but that’s here nor there," said Ford during question period on Thursday, referring to Mamakwa and triggering an uproar from the opposition benches.
The premier was responding to a question from Mamakwa about what the province was doing to “respond to the urgent need to vaccinate urban Indigenous people living in Toronto and Thunder Bay who are currently being hit with the third wave.”
The government has included on-reserve and urban Indigenous adults in northern remote and higher-risk communities in its Phase 1 priority list for COVID-19 vaccines.
"It's not jumping the line, but it's providing leadership," Mamakwa told reporters after question period. "I thought it was just a lack of understanding, but actually it's a lack of respect to Indigenous people, it's a lack of compassion for Indigenous people."
"That's the type of leadership that we have in the north," Mamakwa explained. "It was the leadership in the communities that were taking the vaccine first, that's how the leadership works in our First Nation communities."
Mamakwa said he hadn’t heard from any chiefs who were upset about him getting the vaccine and that it was "hard decision" for him to get vaccinated in the first place because he was worried about how it might look.
But he said vaccination uptake in northern communities is about saving lives and that it was important to promote vaccines as safe. Mamakwa said he was getting calls weeks before he got his first dose from people concerned about sign-up rates of 20 to 60 per cent for the vaccine.
The NDP issued a press release on Feb. 1 noting that Chief Gordon Beardy of Muskrat Dam First Nation and public health officials had asked Mamakwa to take the vaccine after low sign-up rates.
The party included a message from Dr. John Guilfoyle, a physician with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority: "Your support of Operation Remote Immunity, the first phase of the immunization program against COVID-19 is very much appreciated. Your ability to support the community of Muskrat Dam at the request of its leadership is useful ... High-profile, trusted community members setting an example helps to normalize accepting immunization and reinforces that it is an appropriate response to what continues to be a worrisome situation."
That same day, Mamakwa took to social media to explain why he was getting the vaccine and encouraged others to do the same.
I got a vaccine in Muskrat Dam at the request of First Nations leadership and health leaders as part of a movement to encourage our people to get vaccinated.
It shows the shot is safe and I trust in the science. We are protecting ourselves, our languages and our traditions. pic.twitter.com/4vp6HuTayX
— Sol Mamakwa MPP (@solmamakwa) February 2, 2021
Mamakwa said he drove 12 hours from Thunder Bay to get to the community. He stayed there for two nights and spent his time speaking with community members about the vaccine.
"When we spoke about two weeks before they were at about 60 per cent in this community ... when they finished that first round, they were at 97 per cent," he said.
On March 7, Mamakwa posted on social media that he had received his second dose after an invitation by Sandy Lake First Nation and that his goal was to "promote vaccine uptake."
On March 1, 2021, I was invited by Sandy Lake First Nation to receive my 2nd dose of Moderna vaccine. I was there to promote vaccine uptake in fly-in First Nations.
Meegwetch to Dr. Suzanne Shoush for the shot. pic.twitter.com/M6K2JB8Y0H
— Sol Mamakwa MPP (@solmamakwa) March 7, 2021
Mamakwa said when he got his second dose, a doctor from a hospital in southern Ontario praised his decision, saying it would help with uptake. The doctor also said they didn't want people in the north to suffer the way they had seen patients in the south suffer from COVID-19.
"That's when I knew that I have made the right decision," said Mamakwa.
Asked about the premier's comments, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government has prioritized protecting Indigenous communities.
"We know that they are more vulnerable to COVID," said Elliott, noting the province's recent achievement in offering the vaccine to all those in 31 fly-in northern communities and Moosonee.
"I think that the premier was perhaps expressing some frustration because this work is continuing, this is very important to us and that those relationships are ongoing," said Elliott, going on to "salute the Indigenous leaders who have been so strong in working with their populations to receive the vaccines."
But the health minister then seemed to double down.
"I think the other issue is the member was it was great for him to do that ... to deal with some of the vaccine hesitancy that exists in some communities, but we still are asking all people everywhere in Ontario to please wait until your turn comes in the priorities that we've already outlined," she said, later clarifying that she didn't know whether or not Mamakwa was in line for the vaccine.
"As a member of Kingfisher Lake First Nation, MPP Mamakwa not only qualified for the vaccination he received, but was specifically asked to get his shots publicly to assist with the goals of vaccine roll-out, in particular Ontario’s Operation Remote Immunity," wrote Horwath in a letter to Ford on Thursday.
"The member for Kiiwetinoong did what all of us are called to do. He stepped up. He led by example, and he continues to be a big part of the efforts to show that the vaccine is safe," Horwath told reporters.
"The premier rose in his place to insult the member and undermine the work of First Nations leadership, and people in fighting COVID-19. This has no place in Ontario's parliament,” she continued, calling on Ford to apologize to Mamakwa and Indigenous leadership. "The premier needs to undo the damage that he did this morning."
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was in tears as he spoke about Premier Ford's comments.
"I'm feeling emotional because I've met so many Indigenous people who feel so disrespected by settlers," said Schreiner.
"I just can't believe after a year of this pandemic, all that people in this province have been through, for the premier to accuse one of the most respected members of the legislature of queue-jumping when he was just doing his job and showing leadership, I think is completely inappropriate," said Schreiner, also calling on Ford to apologize. "I've been feeling numb ever since that moment happened."
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca called the premier's comments "deplorable" and accused him of trying to "score cheap political points."
"There is a really profoundly important responsibility that a premier has when leading a province like ours to find ways to unite people and to bring people together instead of finding ways to sow seeds of further division and to score or try to score cheap political points in the legislature when dealing with something that is so important, which is the notion of helping to overcome the vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous and First Nations communities," he said.
The premier did not publicly apologize, with his office pointing to Elliott's comments.