Image: Marc Miller/Facebook

The chairpersons for the 10 United Nations human rights treaty bodies urged countries to ensure that human rights are respected in their pandemic measures, including taking special measures to protect the rights to life and health of Indigenous peoples. We are not even close to a human rights response for First Nations in Canada.

The federal response should have included measures to address the ongoing genocide against Indigenous women and girls; the disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples in prisons; the high numbers of First Nations children in foster care and group homes; and the large number of homeless Indigenous peoples. All of these factors present higher risks of infection and death and should have been included in the federal pandemic aid package. Yet, the federal aid package was a stunning disappointment.

On March 26, 2020 Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller announced that the federal government will set aside $215 million for the 634 First Nations in Canada — a woefully inadequate amount. Shortly after the federal announcement, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde appeared pleased with the announcement and thanked Miller, boasting that this funding was due to the AFN’s advocacy. However, AFN Regional Chief for Manitoba Kevin Hart stated that the federal aid was clearly “inadequate” and would be barely enough to cover the needs of the 96 remote First Nations, let alone 634 First Nations.  

By way of comparison, on the same day Miller made his announcement, the United States Senate voted unanimously to pass a bill that will give $8 billion directly to the 573 federally recognized Native American and Alaskan Native tribal governments to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. An additional $2 billion will be set aside for federal programs and services for tribal nations. Not only do the U.S. amounts include funding for emergency health measures, but includes amounts for food, education and housing. The House of Representatives passed the stimulus package Friday, March 27. There is a striking difference between the American and Canadian responses to the impact of the pandemic on First Nation and tribal governments.

That is not to say that the American response is adequate or what was requested by tribal leaders and advocates. Representative Deb Haaland had originally requested a relief package twice the amount agreed to in the bill (although she announced she would vote for the stimulus package on March 27). Similarly, the National Congress of American Indians’ vice-president Aaron Payment explained that the government’s $8-billion pandemic funding for tribes was not nearly enough to address the needs in communities that have been underserved for years. The U.S. reports that there are 5 million Native Americans, but not all of them are tribal citizens. Assuming they were, this would mean that on a per capita basis, U.S. aid equates to roughly US$2,000 per person. As of 2016, there are only 977,230 First Nations peoples in Canada. On a per capita basis, that is $220 per person in emergency funding — not even enough for one week’s groceries, let alone a COVID-19 test and protective equipment. 

Admittedly, these are not exact calculations, nor do they represent how the funds will actually be distributed. However, it does show a significant gap between the responses of the two countries. Miller also indicated that part of the funding formula that will be used to distribute funds to First Nations includes population numbers. There is also a core difference in how both countries arrived at their numbers. In the U.S., tribal leaders and native representatives have been advocating hard and working with officials to develop a proper plan. In Canada, First Nations leaders have, for the most part, been left out of critical federal pandemic finance planning. For weeks now, First Nations have experienced ongoing delays by federal officials who have been largely unable to answer questions about when these funds will be distributed to First Nations and what bureaucratic mechanisms to use to flow the funds.

Niigaan Sinclair, an Anishinabe professor and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press also criticized the federal government’s aid package, explaining that one hospital-grade ventilator alone costs $25,000 and that one medevac flight from a northern First Nation to a southern hospital costs $15,000. This places Indigenous elders at significant risk and he argues the federal government ought to do more.

Similarly, no funding has been specifically identified and communicated to First Nations to address the ongoing genocide against Indigenous women and girls. Their risks are elevated when one considers their higher levels of abuse, violence and exploitation; as well as specific threats like homelessness and infection risks associated with street-living and crowded shelters; and their over-incarceration in crowded and unsanitary prisons. We know that the child welfare system was already in crisis and grossly underfunded prior to the pandemic, yet we’ve heard very little about specific pandemic responses for Indigenous children in care — most of whom are First Nations children. 

To make matters worse, we are headed into spring flooding season and last minute evacuations in the middle of a pandemic would pose serious risks to First Nations health. Kashechewan First Nation located on the James Bay Coast in Ontario are flown out of their community to avoid annual flooding. This community is literally facing both a flooding emergency and a global pandemic at the same time, and they are not alone. Emergency flooding preparations impact approximately 34 First Nations in Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Manitoba every year. The additional preventative health measures needed for evacuations of several First Nations during a pandemic could eat up the federal pandemic aid package before it is ever distributed. 

First Nations in Canada represent almost three per cent of the Canadian population and are, according to all socio-economic indicators, the most at-risk population. During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Indigenous peoples represented less than five per cent of the population at that time, but 18 per cent of all H1N1-related deaths. The majority of those were First Nations peoples. Fast forward to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, and First Nations stand to receive a minuscule portion of the pandemic emergency measures budget (less than one per cent).

We are only at the start of this pandemic and the funds identified will not even cover preventative health measures, let alone crisis level needs. Centuries of land dispossession and genocidal policies meant to clear native lands for settlement and extraction of resources, together with decades of purposeful, chronic underfunding of federal social programs and services like food, water, housing and health care, have created this poverty crisis in First Nations. It has also created a situation where First Nations have the poorest socio-economic conditions including higher rates of disease and poor health. These conditions reduce First Nation life spans — even before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic. These exceptional conditions require an exceptional response — something the federal government has not done.

Taking a wait-and-see or allocate-as-needed approach is also a dangerously reactionary strategy. We need strong preemptive measures and funding to head off disasters before they happen. Like the U.S.’s decades long under-serving of tribal governments, Canada has created the current crisis of poverty in First Nations and is directly responsible for their higher risks of infections and deaths during pandemics. While not sufficient, at least the U.S. has proposed a substantial aid package for tribal governments.

The least Canada can do is step up and work with First Nations to implement a more fulsome response that is grounded in the human rights of First Nations, and that properly reflects populations, location and actual needs — including the multiple overlapping crises and emergencies facing First Nations outside of the pandemic.

Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson chair in Indigenous Governance.

Image: Marc Miller/Facebook


Pamela Palmater

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson...