Issue 14: Growing anxiety in Indigenous communities over COVID-19

The weak federal response to the pandemic is only amplifying the existing health inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged politicians and policy makers in ways unheard of in most of our lifetimes. This newsletter provides short, accessible briefings on policy-adjacent themes and topics relating to the pandemic. Today’s briefing is by Kayli Avveduti (KA), who is is Nēhiyaw iskwew from the Treaty 6 Territory and a graduate student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. She is currently riding out the pandemic at her home on the Alexander First Nation in Alberta.

COVID-19 has forced all countries to closely examine the fragility of their healthcare systems. In Canada, the virus has exposed, once again, the burgeoning crisis of Indigenous health.  

Indigenous healthcare is largely the purview of the federal government, yet indigenous people experience lower health outcomes than non-Indigenous Canadians across the board. They are disproportionately burdened by lower life expectancy and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, tuberculosis, obesity, and hypertension. Health disparities between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Canadians are exacerbated because of enduring colonialist policies, such as the Indian Act. Overcrowding and inadequate health, social, and financial resources have made the challenges of fighting COVID-19 in Indigenous communities even more acute. 

Across Canada, 61 communities still live with long-term boil water advisories, and therefore can’t follow hand-washing guidelines. It is almost impossible to quarantine a symptomatic person when hospital beds run short and many Indigenous people live in overcrowded homes. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has recognized the unique vulnerability of First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities to COVID-19,  but the policy actions taken do not protect at-risk communities. Federal action during the pandemic only highlights, yet again, that Canada is decades behind its UNDRIP, human rights, and Treaty commitments to Indigenous communities.

The Federal Policy Response:

Isolation Tents

In early March the federal government began to publicly acknowledge that Indigenous communities would be particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of the virus. To deal with potential outbreaks the government suggested they might send  isolation tents to remote communities, many of which were still experiencing temperatures well below freezing. As far as many people were concerned, this weak response was only slightly better than sending body bags.

Funding Commitments

The government announced  $305 million in funding:

  • $215 million for First Nations: First Nations can apply for funding based on population, remoteness and community well-being;

  • $45 million for the four Inuit land claims organizations through an allocation determined in conjunction with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami;

  • $30 million for Métis Nation communities to  flow through each of the Governing Members;

  • $15 million for regional and urban Indigenous organizations supporting members living away from their communities, and to regional organizations such as Friendship Centres and the Métis Settlements General Council of Alberta.

$305 million may sound like a lot, but this funding is wholly unsatisfying. With 600+ First Nation Reserves, the $215 million allocated specifically to First Nation totals roughly  $100,000 - $200,000 per community. For communities without healthcare infrastructure capable of preventing and treating the spread of COVID-19, $100,000 is unlikely to purchase little more than some PPE and perhaps hire a nurse. These meagre amounts are a drop in the bucket and do little to close the health and social gaps that are widening even as the pandemic deepens. 

Nunavut will be eligible for the $500 million in federal funding  provided to provinces and territories. But funding is granted on a per capita basis and with a population just under 39,000 will amount to very little. 

First Nation Elections 

Federal guidance to First Nation communities about upcoming leadership elections has been a flop. In an email from Indigenous Services Canada officials, Nations facing elections were provided two options. First, they could postpone the election and face a governance gap and appoint an administrator. Or they could hold elections under strict health supervision such as limiting the number of pens used, sanitizing voting booths between use, and using mail in ballots. Both options put communities in a precarious position where they risk increasing the spread of COVID or face having a modern-day Indian Agent lead the community. If the pandemic has demonstrated anything it is that strong leadership is more important than ever. The federal government’s options are a failure of leadership. 

After the internal email became public, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller retracted this position, advising communities to not hold  elections. As the head of ISC, the Minister has the legal authority to make changes to the Indian Act and the election regulations outlined within. What complicates matters is that many communities are no longer subject to the Indian Act election regulations and have formed their own election codes. Despite this, many community elections codes do not address term extensions, and so the potential for destabilizing governance gaps persists. 

The Indigenous Policy Response

 First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities have responded to the pandemic in various ways:

  • The Manitoba Metis Federation introduced a $1 million action plan to  support Metis elders, entrepreneurs, and employees who have been impacted by COVID-19  

  • The Assembly of First Nations, as well as many First Nation communities, declared a State of Emergency; 

  • First Nation and Inuit communities have begun to limit access to communities through road closure and fly-in bans; 

  • Nunavut has introduced a complete travel ban to the region;

  • Treaty Six communities enacted the Medicine Chest clause and the Famine and Pestilence clause of Treaty Six guaranteeing medical care and assistance during times of crisis. 

Measures taken to date are largely about keeping the virus out of communities while putting more pressure on federal and provincial governments to increase funding and access to medical services. Calls for increased doctors and field hospitals have fallen on deaf ears. Indigenous communities continue to express anxiety over how they will be able to respond when, not if, the virus reaches their homes. 

Many of the current social and health issues facing Indigenous communities are not due to COVID-19, but the pandemic has shed light on the structural, governance and human rights issues that perpetuate inequality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Canada’s troubled past of utilizing pestilence and disease as a weapon against the ‘Indian Problem’ remains fresh in the minds of Indigenous people and on the minds of all Canadians.  The current Liberal government has touted its work to right past wrongs, but this relationship has not been transformed in a meaningful way. The time is long past for Canada to make right on Treaty promises and international commitments to Indigenous people. (KA)

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim (bios here). If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca