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The Indigenous Wellness Research Group, University of Saskatchewan

The effects of COVID-19 on First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities in Canada have been quite varied, and there has been a spectrum of responses by Indigenous communities to the initial outbreak. More than eight months into the pandemic, most communities have been thriving, keeping community health secure from the coronavirus. Yet some communities have been hard hit. For example, in northern Saskatchewan, where approximately 80% of the 40,000 residents identify as First Nations or Métis, COVID-19 infection rates were more significant than the south and central parts of the province from March to July, 2020. (Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia, n.d.; Quenneville & Whitfield, 2020; Ellis, 2020).

The northeast side has been relatively spared and is a geographic region that contains a large percentage of Indigenous people (Ellis, 2020). To the east, Manitoba First Nations have been mostly successful in keeping COVID-19 out of their communities during the initial outbreak (Niigaan, 2020). There have been no confirmed cases throughout Nunavut, with its >90% Inuit population (CBC, 2020).

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Indigenous communities nevertheless remain susceptible to the virus, so emergency response measures vital to prevent more outbreaks and protect population health are continuously required. Collective community action, collaboration, communication, resource mobilization, leadership, and advocacy will be imperative to reduce any magnification of COVID impacts for Indigenous communities.

So, the question is, what factors are contributing to this highly variable response? A crucial consideration is the level of self-determination or sovereignty of the communities. Our communities range from those with high self-determination or independence to those where self-determination is only an aspiration and not yet a reality. One reason for the success of communities who could keep the virus at bay is their ability to regulate movement in and out of the community. Geography aids this factor – it’s easier to control access where there’s only one access road, and perhaps even easier where there’s only fly-in access. However, local authorities must have the wherewithal to set and enforce these access controls, which is an indicator of sovereignty or self-determination. Unfortunately, our urban communities generally lack this kind of authority, with a resulting increased vulnerability.

The level of Indigenous self-determination[1] during the COVID-19 pandemic has been positively impacted by a high commitment of leadership and collaboration within and between communities using and adapting technology. Exchanging practical knowledge, medicines, stories, and preserving a respectful space for ceremony have remained vigilant despite surviving the horrendous adversities projected and exacerbated by colonial history. Therefore, a proactive approach to protect traditions will be necessary to foster collective community resilience[2].

Important COVID-19 information needs to be communicated freely through technology so leaders can protect the health of Indigenous communities. For instance, Piapot First Nation (Treaty 4, SK) Chief & Council adapted to virtual meeting platforms to publicize COVID-19 response measures during the initial outbreak (Piapot First Nation, 2020). Chief & Council communicated the risks associated with large group gatherings and promoted physical distancing protocols so the community can practice safety measures diligently (Piapot First Nation, 2020). Piapot Chief & Council communicated the traffic regulations, community sanitation care-package investments and distributions, band hour operations, local water services, health services, and education protocols (Piapot First Nation, 2020).

Councillor Jeremy Fourhorns (previous chief) is on the community website in videos driving and communicating the initial phases of Piapot’s community emergency response to the initial outbreak and bringing awareness to the community (Piapot First Nation, 2020). The Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations also deployed COVID-19 pandemic information in Indigenous languages to reinforce communications with Elders and Indigenous language speakers (Thomson, 2020). Thus, partnerships, leadership and communication have offered vital leverage in positively impacting Indigenous wellness, community self-determination, and protecting communities’ health during the pandemic.

Our elderly citizens have been particularly affected by COVID-19, with high infection rates and deaths in many seniors residences. An important aspect of this for Indigenous communities is the fact that there are often few opportunities for our seniors to remain in their homes and in their communities as their care needs increase. Our Elders are precious resources to our communities. They are often Knowledge Holders and language speakers, and they represent a vital intergenerational connection to our youth.

Many Indigenous communities lack the resources and policy sovereignty to make decisions and direct resources towards maintaining seniors in their homes and in their communities. Unfortunately, there have been many examples of our Indigenous seniors dying in seniors residences in the urban communities where they have been placed. COVID-19 has just exacerbated a situation that was already unsatisfactory.

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Our Indigenous communities and authorities need the resources and the power to develop programs and policies to keep our seniors close to home. Protecting Elders’ well-being simultaneously protects language and tradition; therefore, protecting Elders adds value to communities’ overall wellness and preservation of identity. Our responsibility is to protect our Knowledge Holders and protect, uplift and promote their intrinsic contributions to our society.

This article is a component of a collection that will be published by the Royal Society of Canada. The collection is available here: https://rsc-src.ca/en/covid-19

[1] “Indigenous self-determination” is internationally recognized as the ability for Indigenous individuals and communities to collectively exercise rights to education, rights to identity and culture and act politically. A fundamental right is to also have sovereign governance of lands and resources.

[2] “Community resilience” refers to the ability for communities to collectively exercise innovative practices to sustain collective cultural identity and traditions.

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