Gina Starblanket is Cree/Saulteaux and a member of the Star Blanket Cree Nation, and is an assistant political science professor at the University of Calgary. Dallas Hunt is Cree and a member of Wapsewsipi (Swan River First Nation), and is an assistant professor of Indigenous literature at the University of British Columbia. Their book, Storying Violence: Unravelling Colonial Narratives in the Stanley Trial, will be released later this year.
With growing instances of community transmission across Canada, Indigenous people are bracing themselves for the eventuality of COVID-19 spreading more widely beyond major urban centres. We fear that when the virus peaks, our nations and leadership may have exceeded their already low capacity to ensure the health and well-being of their membership.
For Indigenous people in Canada, matters of disease, sickness and famine are not unprecedented. Hindsight tells us that we cannot simply sit by and trust that Canada will provide adequate levels of support and aid. Federal and provincial government efforts to address the proliferation of disease within Indigenous communities are not just inadequate, but appalling.
While the federal government and provinces purport to be taking sweeping measures to ebb the flow of coronavirus across Canada, calls for support within Indigenous communities continue to ring loudly. Online media and social-media networks have seen an outcry of concern from Indigenous people and allies, who are pointing to the state’s inability to provide support to Indigenous communities within an appropriate time frame.
After the federal government announced a stimulus package of $300-million for “the immediate needs” of Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities, Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier of the Okanese First Nation Treaty 4 recently remarked: “Now we understand this is a good thing, but it’s only going to start in May. So what about the next four to six weeks, what do we do?”
Ms. Day Walker-Pelletier, along with other chiefs, have outlined the vital need for community-level resources to share information with citizens, engage in community planning, set up social distancing measures in band offices and buildings, plan for the care and transportation of members with compromised health conditions, and purchase emergency foods and other essential supplies.
Daily updates from government officials provide little reassurance. Where vulnerability was initially being discussed in medical terms (COVID-19 is, after all, a health crisis), we are now seeing vulnerability invoked more and more in economic terms, especially in Alberta. The economic implications of the pandemic are indeed tremendous, yet we hope that funding is dedicated to ensure adequate care and support for those with pre-existing health conditions, and not as a Band-Aid for pre-existing economic crises.
Scholars have shown that Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by communicable diseases and have unique determinants of health that lead to rapid disease transmission. Our populations suffer high rates of pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease. Precisely because these types of diseases have hard-hitting, and longstanding, implications in our communities, we continue to feel their effects well after they have been addressed for non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Many of the preventative actions being suggested by medical officials are extremely challenging to apply on reserves and rural contexts as well as in low-income urban housing. Frequent hand washing presumes that one has access to clean water. The ability to isolate or social distance hinges on access to stable and adequately spacious housing. As more merchants reject payments in the form of cash, the acquisition of emergency and essential supplies require access to credit and debit, which many on low or fixed income do not have.
Additionally, the one-size-fits-all measures that federal and provincial governments have implemented have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people who are imbricated in social services. Visits are being cancelled between parents and children who are in care. People with addictions are being graduated from treatment programs early and many forms of in-person support are being suspended. Shelters are closing, leaving those facing homelessness or other forms of violence without housing.
Then there is the convoluted relationship between different levels of government. Even outside of a pandemic, the provision of health services to Indigenous people is a messy, patchwork arrangement. Indigenous leadership needs co-operation from and vital information sharing with other levels of government in order to undertake the proper planning for our communities but, too often, are not provided necessary details or are shut out entirely.
To say that there has always been a disconnect between Indigenous peoples’ calls for support and the federal government’s approach to medical care in Indigenous communities is an understatement. In many ways, the pandemic carries on a lineage and does the work the state cannot do; that is to say, eradicate us so Canada does not have to deal with Indigenous social and political life. Indeed, the ability to provide or withhold medicine and rations in times of calamity have historically been used as ways of extending Canada’s political authority over Indigenous people. This becomes all the more alarming and critical given that COVID-19, like many diseases, renders Indigenous elders – our knowledge-keepers and language holders – particularly susceptible to illness and death. This virus not only places us at risk, but the future well-being of coming generations as well.
Indigenous people need an active, continuing commitment and we need it now. We must be involved in federal and provincial decisions that are disproportionately affecting our membership. We need the immediate capacity to connect with and distribute information to members, engage in community planning, purchase emergency supplies for families, provide offices and essential services, and create plans for the support, care and transportation of our most vulnerable members on- and off-reserve.
Finally, Indigenous communities and organizations need to be able to access and direct the allocation of resources to meet the diverse needs of their membership; because what works for Canada has never worked for us, something history makes glaringly clear.
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