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Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced $82.5-million in funding for mental health services focused on First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities and said the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted access to many existing programs. The Canadian Press

The federal government announced $82.5-million to be spent this year on urgent mental-wellness support in Indigenous communities in response to the added burden of COVID-19.

Recent Statistics Canada studies have highlighted mental-health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the country, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said on Parliament Hill on Tuesday as he unveiled the new funding.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation,” he said.

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There had already been a growing demand for mental-health counselling and support before the pandemic, Mr. Miller said. He noted that Hope for Wellness, a help line for Indigenous people across the country, received 3,602 calls and chats from individuals seeking assistance from January to April, 2019, while there were more than 10,000 in the same period this year.

“The full impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellness of Indigenous peoples and communities will likely not be fully appreciated until long after we emerge from this pandemic,” he said.

Stress is being felt within and across communities and stressful situations can trigger past trauma, he said.

Mr. Miller said the funding will support access to additional mental-wellness services and help adapt them to the COVID-19 context.

He noted, for example, the need to shift some services to virtual platforms and to support Indigenous communities in the development of strategies to address substance abuse and harm reduction.

In a statement on Tuesday, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said it is good to see the federal government and the minister recognizing the issue of mental health and providing additional resources to help First Nations people and families get through the pandemic.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, whose organization represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday it was encouraging to hear about the federal government’s commitment to address the serious mental-health challenges he is seeing.

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The services “are desperately needed and communities need to be able to access these types of supports, especially now that we are moving into the fall and the possible reopening of many of our schools.”

But Mr. Fiddler said that people need more specifics about what Tuesday’s announcement entails.

“I think what’s concerning though is any time there is especially a national announcement like this that there is never any clarity on the process, on how quickly communities can access these much-needed resources.”

Ottawa also plans to help financially with the return to school for First Nations children, Mr. Miller said Tuesday.

Indigenous Services Canada is aware of 437 positive cases of COVID-19 in First Nations and six deaths.

“This is encouraging and demonstrates that many communities have been successful in their efforts to stop the spread of the virus thanks to the leadership they’ve shown and the actions they’ve taken,” Mr. Miller said.

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“This has saved lives, yet we must remain vigilant.”

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