Ontario’s NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is calling on Premier Doug Ford to apologize to Indigenous member of Provincial Parliament Sol Mamakwa after Ford wrongly accused him of vaccine queue-jumping during question period on Thursday.
“The member flew in [to] get his vaccine, so thank you for doing that and kind of jumping the line,” Ford said during question period Thursday. “I talked to a few chiefs that were pretty upset about that for flying into the community that he doesn’t belong to, but that’s here nor there.”
Mamakwa, who represents the northwest Ontario riding of Kiiwetinoong, was invited by Muskrat Dam First Nation Chief Gordon Beardy to receive his first dose of the vaccine in February.
A statement from the NDP on February 1 said that Mamakwa was invited to get his vaccine “at the request of First Nations and public health leaders … following very low sign-up numbers in some First Nations communities” and to “combat vaccine hesitancy in First Nations communities.”
One month later, on March 1, Mamakwa posted a photo on Twitter stating he had received his second dose of the Moderna vaccine at Sandy Lake First Nation after being invited.
Both Muskrat Dam First Nation and Sandy Lake First Nation are in the Kiiwetinoong riding.
Ontario guidelines state that current priority for Phase 1 vaccinations include “Indigenous adults in northern remote and higher risk communities (on-reserve and urban).”
Horwath calls on Ford to apologize to MPP, Indigenous leaders
Speaking with the media, NDP Opposition leader Andrea Horwath defended Mamakwa’s actions.
“Vaccine hesitancy is a reality in many communities as a result of generations of systemic racism, historic traumas and poor treatment by the health system,” she said.
“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 said the premier’s comments insulted Mamakwa’s actions and “undermined the work of First Nations leadership and people in fighting COVID-19.”
She said she is calling on the premier to apologize to Mamakwa and Indigenous leaders and people “who called on him to join them in helping to protect their communities from COVID-19.”
Horwath also sent a letter to Ford after the incident expressing her “shock and considerable concern” about his remarks.
“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,” the letter says.
‘It’s not jumping the line, but providing leadership’
“To make those statements, when you make an effort to increase the vaccinations in the north… I was getting calls a couple of weeks before saying the sign up was very low, as low as 20 per cent, as high as 60 per cent,” Mamakwa told the media on Thursday.
“Those comments that were made… I thought that there was just a lack of understanding, but actually it’s a lack of respect to Indigenous people,” he said.
Mamakwa says when he was first invited to take the vaccine by leaders in the north, they said it would be “an honour” if he joined them to get the vaccine. He called Ford’s comments “undermining and damaging to the vaccination efforts we are trying to do.”
“It was a hard decision for me to make even to go [get] the vaccine because of this,” he said. “It’s not jumping the line, but providing leadership.”
“When I sat down to take my second [dose], an Ornge physician and also a doctor in southern Ontario told me… ‘I’m so glad what you’re doing, I’m happy to see that you’re here because it’ll bring up the uptake of the vaccines in the north.’ ”
Health minister says Ford was ‘expressing frustration’
When Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked by media whether the premier’s comments during question period were appropriate, she suggested he was “expressing some frustration” because the work to vaccinate Indigenous communities is important to the Ford government.
“We salute the Indigenous leaders who have been so strong in working with their populations to receive the vaccines,” she said.
“I think the other issue was — and 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 priority that we already outlined.”
When CBC News reached out to the premier’s office to clarify his remarks and ask whether an apology was being issued, spokesperson Ivana Yelich said “Elliott’s comments stand” and offered no further comment.
For his part, Mamakwa says it’s not about him personally, but rather the lack of compassion for Indigenous leaders across the north.
“It was the leadership in the communities that were taking the vaccine first — that’s how the leadership works in our First Nations communities,” he said.
Mamakwa said he had not heard any negative feedback from First Nations chiefs prior to Ford’s comments.