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From Bodybags to Connectivity: The Indigenous Side of Covid-19

BY: Nathaniel Saad

Throughout the last few months, news outlets have been covering the effects of the Covid-19 virus on large cities and metropolises throughout Canada, monitoring carefully the number of cases and informing the general population on every change. However, there is one significant part of the country that isn’t getting as much attention, yet could be exceptionally more at-risk than many others. The Indigenous populations of Canada, the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups, have been dealing with this pandemic the same as everyone else, yet face a different side of these issues that the majority of Canadians don’t see.

In a recent interview (full podcast available on Youth In Politics website), MP Yvonne Jones, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, explained the deeper issues of the Indigenous response to the pandemic. Outbreaks in Indigenous communities would be extremely detrimental and virtually unmanageable given the resources that they possess. While there have been some cases, it is important to keep them low. One of the main issues is food security. With vast distances to cover between territories and some communities located in extremely remote locations, the transportation of vital goods such as food and medicine can take many days. In addition to this, supply chain costs are rising and the government has been forced to intervene and make sure that every community and reserve has the necessary provisions to last the potential length of a quarantine.

Financial stability is also a large concern. The government is working with community leaders to do outreach to financially insecure and low-income households, as well as implement their own subsidies. Expanding the list of essential foods and supplies people would need, making sure that housing is secure, and providing services to cater to the variety of lifestyles and differences Indigenous communities have are all part of the process of ensuring the safety and well-being of Indigenous Canadians. Feedback has been very positive so far in terms of rations, and the food security needs have been met in most of the communities.

There is a disparity, however, between on-reserve and off-reserve Indigenous. Those who live in large cities and urban centres have a larger access to resources, support agencies, and services that don’t often exist in rural areas such as psychological counselling or large hospitals. While the situation may vary from reserve to reserve, many of them are very removed from central healthcare services. This is why the government has been increasing funding for homeless shelters both on reserve and off-reserve, which was especially useful at the peak of the pandemic. The same is being done for women’s centres. “We stepped up to support every women’s shelter in the country” declared MP Jones as she explained the ways the government was ensuring that every side of the issue was being considered. Mental health, food security, and shelter services are all parts of the multi-faceted approach that the government has been using to tackle the problem.

In terms of youth, the government is also keeping a close eye on the situation. Students everywhere who have had to resort to online learning to complete their semester are facing technological and internet challenges on a daily basis. This is especially difficult with Indigenous students who have either had to stay in Urban centres over the summer to complete their semester, or those that have returned to reserves where the connection and technological infrastructure is lacking. However, the government has made connectivity a key part of their plan, especially for rural and Indigenous Canada. Through things like the Universal Broadband Fund, the government is promising high speed internet in 95% of Canadian houses and businesses by 2026. “It’s an ambitious goal, but a necessary goal and one that I’m very confident we can meet.”

Recently, National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations stated that Indigenous leaders were not being given enough input in the decision-making process. This has often been an issue when one looks at Canadian history. In fact, during the swine flu season of 2009, Indigenous leaders in Manitoba were appalled that some of the reserves hardest hit had been sent body bags by Health Canada instead of medicine. Too often has their been a gaping chasm between what people think Indigenous communities want and what they actually need. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, however, assured that things were different. “Our government has been unwavering in our commitment and in support to Indigenous Canadians and to all Canadians…we’ve engaged with them and other Indigenous partners as well to look at how we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic and what kind of response is required in indigenous communities… One thing’s for certain: We’re here to listen and work with all indigenous leaders and to hear their input which is so important and valuable to us as a government.”

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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