The leader of Canada’s most populous province is facing calls for an apology after he wrongly accused an Indigenous lawmaker of queue-jumping for his coronavirus vaccine.
The outcry over Doug Ford’s comments highlights the sensitivity of the accusations as well as the broader challenges of addressing vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities, a group that still faces discrimination within the healthcare system.
At Ontario’s legislative assembly on Thursday , Ford denounced Sol Mamakwa for “jumping the line” to receive shots. Mamakwa received his vaccine in two remote communities at the request of their leadership.
“I talked to a few chiefs that were pretty upset about that, for flying into a community that he doesn’t belong to,” Ford said, without naming those chiefs.
Mamakwa, a member of the New Democratic party and resident of King Fisher First Nation in northern Ontario, is the only lawmaker in the provincial legislature from a First Nations community.
In March, he was invited by leaders of two fly-in communities – Muskrat Dam and Sandy Lake – to help combat vaccine hesitancy among residents. He posted on social media about his vaccination.
On Thursday, Mamakwa expressed dismay over Ford’s “lack of respect” towards Indigenous peoples.
“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.”
After he went to the communities, both within his electoral district of Kiiwetinoong, more residents signed up to get their vaccine.
Opposition leaders also demanded that Ford apologize to Mamakwa and First Nation residents.
“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,” the NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, told reporters. “[Mamakwa] 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.”
Ontario’s health minister, Christine Elliott, defended Ford, saying the premier was simply expressing frustration because of the “continuing work” of vaccinating First Nations people.
“Everyone needs to wait their turn. I’m not sure whether [Mr Mamakwa] was in the lineup for a vaccine or not,” she said.
The premier’s office says he will not issue an apology and told the Guardian in an email that “[Elliott’s] comments stand”.