Advocates say COVID-19 has put vulnerable First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls at a greater risk of violence and they are calling on the federal government to boost immediate supports for them.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) is among organizations speaking out to say its representatives have heard about a “significant increase” in violence according to results of a grassroots-level needs assessment and a national survey by the organization.
“We are hearing our Prime Minister, our premiers, the health authority telling us to all stay home where we are safe,” NWAC President Lorraine Whitman told The Globe and Mail. “In a perfect world, staying home is a safe place, but it certainly isn’t for everyone and it isn’t for some of our Indigenous women in their communities."
Ms. Whitman said her organization is also concerned that the pandemic will delay the government’s response to violence documented in the federally commissioned inquiry report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and gender-diverse people, released nearly a year ago.
In December, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government hoped to have a national action plan in response to the inquiry in June.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated that work to create such as plan is more important than it “has ever been.”
“We will continue to work very hard on that national action plan coming from the missing and murdered inquiry," Mr. Trudeau said. “This is a priority that continues and is even intensified because of this crisis.”
The Prime Minister also acknowledged the rise in domestic violence during the pandemic.
The Liberal government has provided financial supports to shelters and organizations and networks that are supporting victims of family violence or gender-based violence, Mr. Trudeau said.
Ottawa last month announced $50-million to support shelter and sexual assault centres for women and children fleeing violence, including $10-million for women’s shelters on reserve and in Yukon.
But there are concerns that this support is not enough.
Métis Senator Yvonne Boyer said funding earmarked for Indigenous people during the pandemic is welcome but is insufficient in proportion to the population.
She said a separate $15-million included in an Indigenous community-support fund, which is designed for organizations and communities providing support in urban centres or off reserve such as friendship centres, is less than what is required.
Additional resources are urgently needed to target those who need it the most, such as a large number of Indigenous people who are homeless, she said.
“We need more resources for the urban Indigenous population, particularly because we have women that are being affected and women with children that are being affected that are in the shelters," the senator said.
“The shelters are full and they are full of Indigenous people who need help and they need housing.”
Jocelyn Formsma, the executive director of the National Association of Friendship Centres, agreed Monday that greater funding is required to support urban Indigenous people during COVID-19.
Ms. Formsma said friendship centres, which help to facilitate the transition of Indigenous people from rural, remote and reserve life to urban environments, have established relationships and are well placed to provide support for those in need.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for Ms. Bennett said the federal government is working to deliver measures specific to urban Indigenous communities, but she conceded that more support will be needed.
The federal government must consider how the pandemic has affected the risk factors for violence against Indigenous women and girls, press secretary Emily Williams said.
“As all governments – federal, provincial/territorial, Indigenous – continue to respond to the pandemic and plan a path to recovery, we must ensure that our actions to address MMIWG account for a COVID-19 reality for these women,” she said.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.