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Manitoba First Nations want military help with coronavirus preparations

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Some Manitoba First Nations are asking for military help to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic.

Global News has confirmed a report first published by CBC News on Tuesday morning that two First Nations communities in Manitoba — the Cross Lake Band of Indians and Norway House Cree Nation — sent their requests to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in the form of a letter.

“Under normal circumstances, the 15,000 plus members between the two communities are hard-pressed to receive adequate health care services,” said the joint letter signed by community chiefs David Monias and Larson Anderson that calls for a military hospital to be established within their territories.

“The military medical infrastructure can make a big difference in addressing our service gaps on health service such as testing, quarantining, and housing or medivacing First Nation people who are affected by COVID-19.”

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The letter, a copy of which was shared with Global News, calls the spread of disease in the communities “not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when.'”

READ MORE: Indigenous leaders say coronavirus funding won’t go far enough

However, that’s not the normal route for making such asks.

Communities requesting military help generally need to go through their provincial governments, so it’s unclear at this point what will happen next and how those requests will be addressed.

Global News has reached out to Sajjan’s office for their reaction.

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The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe has infected 801,400 people so far and killed 38,743.

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In Canada, there are 7,424 confirmed cases and 89 deaths as of Tuesday morning.

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But the lack of doctors, poverty, remoteness and close quarters in many Indigenous communities have been raised by parliamentarians as factors that make those communities especially vulnerable.

READ MORE: Canadian military on war footing in case of COVID-19 crisis call

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance has said the military is prepared to respond to any requests for help from the provinces.

That has included paring back overseas duties, recalling members from postings and vacation abroad, and opening the door to former members who want to return to help with the pandemic response.

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Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is paying close attention to those communities and listening to input about what they need to weather the pandemic.

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“When it comes to Indigenous communities in particular, [Indigenous Services] Minister [Marc] Miller is very, very focused on specific needs,” she said when asked about the potential for a military hospital.

“Nothing is off the table.”

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam also addressed the matter during comments to reporters on Tuesday. She said the remoteness of many communities poses a challenge, particularly for things like diagnosing patients and flying samples for lab testing.

READ MORE: Yukon sees its first two COVID-19 cases — a couple who recently visited the U.S.

She added public health officials are looking at whether they can develop ways for more localized testing so that samples don’t have to be flown significant distances in and out of remote communities.

“Any single case in those communities, we have to really take it extremely seriously,” she said.

The first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Nunavik in northern Quebec late last week.

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Yukon also reported its first two cases roughly one week ago.

Both had recently travelled from the United States.