WINNIPEG -- The Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO) is denouncing comments made by Premier Brian Pallister, saying it is “dangerous” to blame Indigenous leaders for the high number of COVID-19 cases in northern Manitoba.

On Thursday, Pallister made a comment regarding Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson’s decision to relax restrictions over the holidays and allow visitors in the community.

“Just as a comparison, since Dec. 14 when coincidentally one of our major Indigenous leaders proclaimed that public health orders didn’t need to be followed in his case,” the premier said.

“Until today, Manitoba First Nations Response Coordination Team reports that the percentage of new cases went from 36 per cent in December on the 14th to 58 per cent now.

“The percentage of ICU patients for Indigenous (people) went from 52 per cent to 64. The percentage of active cases went from 34 per cent, more than double, to 73 per cent.”

The numbers the premier is speaking about here refer to the percentage of the province’s new cases, ICU patients and active cases that are made up from Manitoba’s entire First Nation population.

Pallister said he made this comment, “because it should remind all of us what happens when you run a victory lap too soon or when you start to forget that public health orders matter.” 

On Thursday night, Hudson told CTV News Winnipeg that Peguis First Nation went 26 straight days, between Dec. 16 and mid-January, without a new infection. Currently, there are eight cases in the community.

The SCO released a statement on Pallister’s comments, saying the organization is “appalled” at him blaming Indigenous leaders for the high COVID-19 case count among Manitoba’s First Nations.

“We have seen this type of rhetoric from Pallister numerous times throughout the pandemic and it is absolutely unacceptable and quite dangerous,” said SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels in a news release. 

“His comments only serve to further stigmatize First Nation people and undermine our leadership at a time when First Nation Chiefs, Councils, and health care workers are doing everything they can to save lives and keep people safe.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee said in a statement that First Nations leaders, health-care workers, pandemic response staff and citizens have been working hard to keep COVID-19 out of their communities.

He noted, as sovereign nations, their communities have the right to create their own laws for governance, adding that they do work closely with Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, and other health leaders to make sure their measures are aligned with the rest of the province. 

“The fact of the matter is that First Nations were always going to be at a disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19,” he said.

“The underlying issues of a lack of housing, lack of access to health care, high rates of poverty, and boil water advisories impact our ability to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”