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'We’ve said that some of the most vulnerable communities are First Nation communities, especially the fly-in ones,' National Chief Perry Bellegarde.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday his advocacy organization has declared a state of emergency to ensure there is a heightened level of awareness from all governments about concerns over the coronavirus in First Nations communities.

Mr. Bellegarde, whose organization, which represents more than 900,000 people in 634 communities, told The Globe on Tuesday he has heard from many First Nations chiefs who are concerned about not having appropriate resources in place to confront the potential impact of the virus.

“We’ve said that some of the most vulnerable communities are First Nation communities, especially the fly-in ones,” Mr. Bellegarde said. "By passing the motion from our AFN executive for the state of emergency, it focuses attention and energy towards this pandemic that’s going to hit our communities.”

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Last week, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam acknowledged that First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities face a higher risk of “severe outcomes” with the coronavirus given health inequities, higher rates of underlying medical conditions and challenges faced in remote and fly-in communities.

First Nations must be involved in emergency planning by all governments, Mr. Bellegarde said, adding he has been in contact with the federal government and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to stress this direct involvement.

Ottawa has earmarked $100-million for immediate preparedness in communities and $305-million for an Indigenous community support fund. Mr. Bellegarde said his organization has also received assurances from Ottawa these are not capped amounts

“The needs are going to be huge,” Mr. Bellegarde said, pointing to 634 First Nations communities across Canada. “We need to get them [the resources] into the hands of our leadership now.”

A drain on existing health care systems is also expected when the pandemic hits First Nations, Mr. Bellegarde said, adding people in the North will have to be transported to cities such as Toronto and Thunder Bay, or to Sioux Lookout, Ont., to receive emergency medical care.

Many communities do not have hospitals, he added, noting existing health care centres are already understaffed.

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There are additional challenges to accessing the medical supplies needed to deal with the pandemic in First Nations communities, Mr. Bellegarde added, noting this includes testing kits and masks.

There are already a number of challenges in communities as it is, Mr. Bellegarde said, adding that is why there must be focused, strategic efforts from all governments to deal with the pandemic.

“It’s not a matter of if it hits," he said. “It is a matter of when.”

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