Cindy Blackstock is the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Isadore Day, member of Serpent River First Nation, is the former chair of the Assembly of First Nations’ Chiefs Committee on Health.
While the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s response to assist First Nation communities has been especially appalling. The Globe and Mail has reported that at least nine have identified one or more COVID-19 cases. We also are aware of the potential catastrophes that await the many communities whose residents live in poverty and despair.
The story of Eabametoong First Nation in northern Ontario, which has confirmed the presence of COVID-19, could be repeated in more than 100 communities across Canada. Within these communities are cases of overcrowded homes, a lack of clean water, unreliable electricity and constant declarations of states of emergency. These conditions are symptomatic of the federal government’s conscious decision to provide First Nations with inequitable public services. The situation creates a perfect storm for the propagation of disease and cripples the ability of communities to properly respond.
On Monday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde stated that $305-million allocated for federal emergency management assistance to Indigenous peoples is "an important start.” That is less than 1 per cent of the federal government’s COVID-19 funding announcements. Furthermore, $215-million of this funding is expected to be distributed among 633 First Nations in Canada.
Mr. Bellegarde is right that there is “considerable ground to make up to ensure First Nations and Canadians share an equal quality of life, particularly where health services, community infrastructure, housing, education and proper funding arrangements are concerned." The federal government’s repeated non-compliance with Canadian Human Rights Tribunal orders to end inequitable services to First Nations children and families shows how deeply ingrained discrimination is within the federal government.
Despite the Prime Minister’s agreement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, the federal government has refused to develop a plan with First Nations to eradicate all of the inequities that communities experience. Without a plan, First Nations will continue to be “at risk” to a greater extent whenever a natural disaster or pandemic hits.
The reality is that a federal government touting “deliverology” as the answer to getting projects out the door has failed miserably in delivering funding to First Nations. Too much of the announced funding is eaten up by the federal bureaucracy or not released at all. While some progress has been made on ending boil-water advisories, too many communities still have no way to properly wash their hands in this pandemic. How can families do social distancing when perhaps 10 or 20 people live in the same house? How can First Nations children learn without access to the internet? What happens when people with already high rates of chronic and lung diseases are infected with COVID-19?
Mr. Bellegarde states that COVID-19 offers an opportunity for change – but if past behaviour is the best indicator of future action, the federal government is destined to do no better, even when it knows better. More than a century ago, Canada’s public health officer in the Indian Affairs Department, Dr. Peter Bryce, linked inequitable health-care funding to skyrocketing rates of children dying in residential schools due to preventable disease. The federal answer was to make attendance at the schools mandatory and thousands of children died. Ten years ago, the federal response to the H1N1 virus was to send body bags to some First Nation communities. At the end of the day, all Indigenous peoples will remain victims as long as we continue to be treated as second- or third-class citizens.
The federal government must do what Dr. Bryce recommended – end the inequalities in all First Nations public services and implement practical reforms to address the immediate crisis. If Canada only does one – or both, inadequately – more people will die because the federal government did not do better when it knew better.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.