Issue 39: For northern First Nations, the pandemic is an opportunity

COVID-19 will require northern communities to remain isolated from the south, but this should be seen as a chance to turn marginalisation into independence

Today’s briefing is by Marc Dunn (MD) and Ian Peach (IP). Marc is an independent consultant and advisor who has worked over 20 years in Eeyou Istchee, the traditional homeland of the James Bay (Qc) Cree Nation, as well as among several First Nations groups in Central and South America. Ian has worked for governments across Canada, and his areas of expertise include constitutional law, intergovernmental relations, Aboriginal law and Crown-Indigenous relations policy.

The Cree Nation of Waskaganish — Photograph by Ryan Erless

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THE RECENT PLEAS FOR ASSISTANCE by several northern First Nations leaders across Canada in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic have reminded us just how vulnerable these communities are.  Northern First Nations communities have experienced crushing economic marginalisation throughout the “modern” history of Canada and most of them continue to suffer today. The threat that the COVID-19 pandemic represents bluntly confronts all of us with the reality of the systemic inequality of Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

The reality for too many Indigenous people is one of geographic isolation of their communities and chronic underfunding of such basic services as housing and sewer and water infrastructure that leads to overcrowded and unsafe residences for too many. It is also a reality in which pre-existing medical conditions are all too prevalent, reducing people’s immunity from infections and exacerbating the harm those infections do, and in which adequate, readily accessible healthcare services to help Indigenous people prevent infections and to treat them effectively when infections do arise are lacking.

These all contribute to creating a powder keg that could explode should COVID-19 appear in these communities. As symptoms of systemic inequality, these conditions will not likely improve between now and when a COVID-19 vaccine is found, so communities will no doubt need to adapt to and manage the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic in the short- and medium-term. Therein lies not only a daunting challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity, provided that the governments and businesses that communities need to support them respond adequately, and that they all work in a coordinated manner to address the challenges of the pandemic.

COVID-19 will require communities to remain segregated from the rest of Canada, though right now it would be by their choice and for valid reasons, not as a consequence of government policies. For the duration of the current pandemic, many northern First Nation communities will need to isolate themselves from outsiders, who come largely from the south, to reduce the risk of contamination as much as possible. This physical separation need not mean economic marginalization, though. Instead, it could mean greater economic independence for these communities. The self-imposed isolation can allow communities to take a greater lead in designing, delivering, and managing activities in which they usually engage, such as building local infrastructure and housing.

Labour supply will need to come almost entirely from the communities. Several already possess important on-the-ground experience with a variety of activities, having ramped up construction in recent years as a result of greater investment from different levels of government. Now is the chance for them to take up a more prominent role at the management level. Outside contractors will still likely be needed in this new environment, but they must be willing to play more of a supporting role through distance learning and coaching. Communities, for their part, will need to be willing to continue to engage with outside allies to ensure that quality standards continue to be met while their residents ease into their new decision-making roles. 

In working with the Cree of northern Quebec, for example, the single biggest constraint in community members taking a lead role in managing big projects seems to be confidence, not capacity. Many community members have enough experience to know how to do many jobs, and probably do them in a way that is more appropriate for their communities than “the southern way”. Good coaching can unlock all the amazing human resource potential that these communities have.

As well, investment will need to continue to flow into communities, and ideally should be ramped up to support this shift towards greater self-sufficiency. As much as possible, supply chains into communities should be consolidated through local entrepreneurs. This, too, will limit the extent to which goods and people from outside the communities flow into the communities, thereby limiting risk of infection, while ensuring that goods that are brought in correspond to local needs.

Once goods are in the communities, they need to be used to the greatest extent possible. For example, leftover building materials from housing construction can be resold to a local company to build small infrastructure in bush camps, such as sheds or outhouses. This maximizes the use of the resources that come into the territory, while having the fringe benefit of reducing waste.

Communities will also need to do their own environmental management of the projects they undertake, including impact assessments, rather than have southerners come in to do these tasks for them. The new federal Impact Assessment Act provides Indigenous communities with the opportunity to undertake their own impact assessment processes and have the decisions these processes arrive at recognized as authoritative. The federal government should therefore act to do what their impact assessment legislation gives them the freedom to do.

The establishment of economic independence and the creation of opportunities for community members to develop new skills and experience in new roles and responsibilities would be an important step towards self-determination. Managed right, the challenge of COVID-19 could prove to be a moment of opportunity for Indigenous peoples to create a new, more dynamic and equal place for themselves within Canadian society. (MD & IP)

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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