Doug Ford owes Sol Mamakwa an apology

OPINION: The premier accused the Kiiwetinoong MPP of vaccine queue-jumping. The evidence says he was wrong. So where’s the retraction?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 12, 2021
MPP Sol Mamakwa in Wapekeka First Nation with Ornge’s vaccination team on February 8. (Twitter/@solmamakwa)

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Update, 3:48 p.m.: Sol Mamakwa's office has confirmed that Premier Doug Ford telephoned Friday afternoon to offer an apology.

A few facts about Ontario’s performance in the COVID-19 pandemic to date, as we round the one-year anniversary of this ordeal: of the 12 other provinces and territories in this country, eight have had fewer cases per capita; 10 have had fewer deaths per capita. We’re at least still in the top tier for testing, but testing alone doesn’t end a pandemic.

And we learned Friday morning that our pandemic performance hasn’t even been offset by an improved economic outlook: Ontario is third from the bottom in terms of provinces closest to their pre-COVID employment levels, ahead of only Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and New Brunswick — which have all been substantially more successful at fighting the pandemic in different ways — take the podium.

All of which is to say that, while Ontario could be doing a lot worse, this province has not been so spectacularly well-governed that the Tories have earned the right to sneer at their critics.

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In case you don’t know what I’m talking about: on Thursday, Premier Doug Ford responded to a perfectly legitimate question about the government’s efforts to vaccinate Indigenous people living in Ontario’s cities by levelling a false accusation that his NDP questioner, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, had “jumped the line” and gotten vaccinated ahead of his turn.

Again, let’s lay out some facts — none of which have been directly contested by the premier’s office: Sol Mamakwa is an Indigenous adult and has thus been part of a group eligible for vaccination since the government started Phase I of its vaccination drive. Mamakwa is from a remote First Nation (Kingfisher Lake, in the province’s far northwest), and his riding contains several others. Remote First Nations have been a key priority for Ontario’s vaccination plan for good reason: an outbreak in a remote Indigenous community could be devastating, as it does not have easy access to the kinds of medical resources available to urban and southern communities.

Faced with early surveys that showed a relatively low enthusiasm for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the Globe and Mail reports, Chief Gordon Beardy of Muskrat Dam First Nation invited Mamakwa to receive a first dose of the vaccine in his community to help raise awareness and fight people’s hesitancy. (The NDP has made Beardy’s letter public; its authenticity is not disputed.) Mamakwa tweeted about getting his first vaccine on February 1, and he received his second dose at the Sandy Lake First Nation on March 1. In a February 8 tweet, Ornge, the provincial air-ambulance service that’s been conducting vaccination clinics in Ontario’s vast far north, thanked Mamakwa for his work encouraging Indigenous people to get vaccinated.

All of these are publicly available facts, and other news outlets have reported that Indigenous leaders at the local, provincial, and national levels are calling for Ford to retract and apologize for his baseless accusation. It’s also important to note that neither Mamakwa nor the NDP has done anything devious: the official Opposition sent out a press release to announce Mamakwa’s decision back in February, which is hardly the thing you’d do if there was anything underhanded about this.

What’s less obvious to people who haven’t walked the halls of Queen’s Park is that Mamakwa is likely not enjoying any of this one bit. He’s one of the least showy MPPs in the current class. He has (to my eyes, anyway) sometimes seemed visibly uncomfortable with the prominence that comes with being one of the only Indigenous MPPs in Ontario’s history. Admittedly, I haven’t seen him in person in more than a year now, but when the NDP press release arrived in my inbox back in February, I was struck by the fact that Mamakwa was putting his public stature to use in a way that I didn’t think would come naturally to him — he has not been the kind of MPP who charges whatever microphone or TV camera is nearest.

But he did it, because he was asked to and because he represents communities this province spends most of its time forgetting (except when it uses the far north as either a strip mine to be emptied or a dump to be filled). And instead of being thanked for his efforts — which, and this bears repeating, involved helping the government implement one of its most important priorities in early 2021 — he faced an ugly accusation from the premier that was unsupported by facts.

We are still in a dangerous time in Ontario. A third wave may already have begun. Our hospital ICUs never really emptied out from the second, variants of concern could cause explosive outbreaks in communities that are unprepared for them, and it’s anyone’s guess whether the migrant workers already streaming into the province’s farm country will be any better protected this year than they were last. The modelling briefing presented yesterday gives us reason for optimism that vaccinations will help forestall total catastrophe, but, in the immediate future, they’ll work only in combination with public-health measures, and the government is going to need the public on board with those measures at a time when people are already growing restless and frustrated after a long, hard year.

In short, we need that “Ontario Spirit” I’ve heard so much about over the past year for at least a little bit longer, and it would be best for everyone if the premier could get back with the program. He shouldn’t have said what he did, and having said it, he should apologize.

For more on this topic, read Sabrina Nanji’s story “How do you fight vaccine hesitancy?”

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