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David Chartrand, the national spokesperson for the Métis National Council, warned of potential 'catastrophic results' if the virus hits some communities.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders are raising concerns about the potential impact of the coronavirus on their remote and rural communities, but say they don’t want the outbreak to push other issues off of the agenda for their meeting with provincial and federal leaders.

Ahead of the Thursday meeting, David Chartrand, the national spokesperson for the Métis National Council, warned of potential “catastrophic results” if the virus hits some communities.

The Ottawa meeting with Indigenous, federal and provincial leaders was booked before the virus reached pandemic levels, and the health scare is quickly crowding out other priorities. The high-level meeting will mark the start of a two-day gathering, which will continue on Friday between the Prime Minister and premiers.

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On Wednesday, two premiers cancelled their trips to Ottawa because of the virus. New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs asked whether he could participate remotely and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said he wasn’t going “out of an abundance of caution.”

Mr. Chartrand said he plans to address concerns he has about how Métis communities would manage an outbreak of coronavirus.

“If it hits our communities, our villages and settlements, it could well have catastrophic results,” he said.

While First Nations and Inuit are covered by federal health legislation, Mr. Chartrand said Métis can’t access health-care services in those communities even when they are much closer than services offered by the province.

He said the federation is considering buying motor homes so that people who live in overcrowded homes will have somewhere to go if they need to self-isolate.

“We lack the resources and capacity to address the challenge and there is no Métis-specific plan in some of the provinces," Mr. Chartrand said.

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government said the province has implemented an Incident Management Structure to co-ordinate the response to possible cases of COVID-19, and that includes regular calls with Indigenous health partners.

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Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller’s office said Ottawa is working with all Indigenous communities, including the Métis, to confirm the “necessary resources are in place.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, whose organization represents more than 900,000 First Nation citizens, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, who advocates for Canada’s 65,000 Inuit, also raised concerns Wednesday about the specific challenges the virus poses.

Mr. Bellegarde said that some communities are already dealing with a lack of clean drinking water, limited health services and overcrowded housing.

“The government has been responsive and is bringing the Inuit perspective into the larger Canadian response," Mr. Obed said.

With 96 remote, fly-in communities, Mr. Bellegarde, called the virus a “very major issue" that will require a “greater focus,” but said he also wants to talk about the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the rollout of Canada’s new child welfare bill that seeks to affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples and the response from all levels of government to the report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The issues he raised were echoed by Mr. Chartrand and Mr. Obed. The president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami said a lack of critical infrastructure in Inuit communities also needed to be addressed at the meetings.

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In a statement, B.C. Premier John Horgan said the coronavirus outbreak isn’t the only challenge facing Canada’s leaders and he listed achieving “meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples” as among the other issues he wants to address at the meetings.

With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria and The Canadian Press.

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