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A small checkpoint blocks a bridge that enters Lac La Croix First Nation to track community members who come and go to help reduce the spread of Covid-19.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Perry Bellegarde is the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on everyone in the world, and First Nations are no exception. Like most Canadians, our people are coming together by staying apart. Many First Nations have modified or postponed the ceremonies and gatherings that are vital to keeping our cultures alive. And some have returned home to be closer to our families and to look after our elders, whose memories and wisdom we rely upon to keep us grounded and in touch with our Creator.

We must protect our elders, as it is through them that we understand our relationship with Canada. Our treaty relationship with the Crown was consecrated by our ancestors in the presence of our Creator and as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grasses grow, this covenant remains in effect and is passed from generation to generation. It is why we must, as First Nations, take most seriously our commitments to protecting ourselves, our communities and Mother Earth. Our survival as peoples is at stake.

Over the past three weeks, the Assembly of First Nations has been focused on getting out the message that we must view the novel coronavirus as an existential threat to nearly one million First Nations people. In some cases, that means sharing wise practices on how we, First Nations, can care for ourselves, from basic public-health measures to ones dealing with mental and emotional health. We have also pressed the importance of working in concert with all Canadians to keep everyone safe and secure.

But while we share many of the same goals and challenges as all Canadians, we face some unique ones as well, especially when it comes to our 96 isolated First Nations. If the virus were to strike one of them, the devastation could be complete unless we have a plan.

In many First Nations, potable water is intermittent at best and clean running water is a luxury. Timely access to health care is simply not a reality. Complicating this, First Nations also have higher incidences of heart disease, tuberculosis, diabetes and chronic lung problems brought on by living in mouldy and unsafe housing. Indeed, from China to Europe to the United States, one fact is becoming clearer by the day: Inequality is a comorbidity and often determines who lives and who dies. This pandemic exacerbates the already dire circumstances in which too many of our people live.

The federal government moved quickly in March to provide $305-million in emergency management assistance to Indigenous peoples. This is an important start but even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we had 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.

Even in normal years, First Nations sometimes rely on the Department of National Defence to assist us in dealing with fires and floods. This year will likely be no different, only with the added complication of the virus. The AFN has been advocating to ensure these systems will be in place for timely evacuations if needed.

While the next few weeks and months are sure to be filled with fear, uncertainty and loss, we should also understand that COVID-19 might not be the only challenge Canadians face in 2020. But we also need to maintain hope and optimism for better days ahead. We should use this time to begin looking forward to how we want the future to look and how our actions today can bring all of us to a better tomorrow.

First Nations are taught to see all of creation as our family. We are all related. Our spiritual guardians – Father Sky, Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon and all of the spirit beings ­– deserve respect, love and protection, just as we protect our own flesh and blood.

This virus lays bare the links between our well-being, our climate and the biodiversity crisis of our own creation, which now stares humanity in the face. As we are all forced to consider our own mortality, we should also consider our opportunities to be better stewards of our communities, of our resources and of our world. Let’s not view this as the end of something, but as the beginning of something better.

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