COVID-19 spared Indigenous communities at first but is now attacking them

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Minister Marc Miller pictured in June 2020. Image: Marc Miller/Twitter

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last winter, Indigenous communities in Canada were acutely aware of their heightened vulnerability. They feared that even a small number of initial cases could quickly grow -- and wreak havoc on Indigenous people throughout the country.

Past experience, as recent as the H1N1 flu of 2009, had taught Indigenous people that when Canadians in general might feel a jolt from an epidemic, Indigenous communities were likely to experience a health tsunami.

In 2009, the H1N1 infection rate across Canada was 24 per 100,000. Among First Nations people in one province, Manitoba, the rate was 130 per 100,000. In Nunavut, it was a whopping 1,070 per 100,000.

In March, this reporter and others warned that planning for the current pandemic had to include specific provisions to take into account the particular risks First Nations face.

In the winter of 2020, Indigenous leadership, especially in the more remote and isolated communities, did, in fact, take quick and decisive action to head off what they saw as a potential catastrophe. For instance, they severely restricted travel in and out of, and through, their communities. That meant denying many vacation-property owners access to their second homes, but most took it with good grace.

Then summer came, the pandemic seemed to recede, and, as a country, we let down our guard. Now that the feared second wave has come, Indigenous communities have not been spared. There are currently outbreaks among Indigenous people in at least six provinces, with the largest numbers in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Among the many First Nations coping with outbreaks are Little Grand Rapids in Manitoba and the Tla'amin Nation in British Columbia. Some members of the Manitoba First Nation are now housed in Winnipeg hotels, the only way to protect their fly-in community, where housing is crowded and sanitation conditions are inadequate.

Federal government recognizes the danger

The federal department of Indigenous services sounded the alarm bell at the beginning of October, noting that there were 129 active First Nations COVID-19 cases.

The Indigenous services minister, Montreal MP Marc Miller, asked Indigenous people to practice the same preventive measures that kept the pandemic at bay in their communities during its first wave -- measures that include limiting the size of gatherings and, as much as possible, restricting travel in and out of First Nations communities.

Those are sound recommendations, but are easier said than done.

The basic ingredient required to wash hands and keep surfaces free of infection, safe and clean water, is still not available throughout Indigenous Canada. And most Indigenous people live in crowded conditions, meaning it is almost impossible for people stricken with the virus to isolate themselves.

Viewed more broadly, the pandemic underscores the still-unresolved governance issues that hobble efforts to improve living conditions and basic services in Indigenous communities. Way back in 2011, this writer reported on the House of Commons public accounts committee's examination of the federal government's longstanding failure to provide adequate basic services to Indigenous people.

The committee was looking into one of a long series of damning reports from the auditor general that laid the blame for poor results in First Nations health, housing, education and basic services such as clean water at the feet of an antiquated system.

The auditor general at that time, Sheila Fraser, wrote: "Broader concerns that we believe have inhibited progress include the lack of clarity about service levels on First Nations reserves, lack of a legislative base to fund service delivery on reserves, a lack of an appropriate funding mechanism, and a lack of organizations that could support local service delivery."

There has been some progress over the past nine years, especially since the Liberals replaced the Harper Conservatives, whose attitude toward First Nations varied from passive-aggressivity to outright hostility. But financing, management, governance and delivery of services is still a tangled jurisdictional and administrative mess.

Indigenous Services Canada, notionally in collaboration with at least partially self-governing First Nations communities, has over-arching responsibility for some services, such as education and infrastructure. But other departments are involved as well. Adolescents from reserves must still travel to larger centres such as Thunder Bay in northwest Ontario to attend provincially run high schools.

As for health, it is Health Canada, not Indigenous Services, that runs nursing stations and other health-related services on First Nations. And here, again, the provinces are also involved. When Indigenous people require health care unavailable to them locally, they have to go to hospitals run by the provinces.

The real need is for sustainable self-government

We saw how that intertwining of jurisdictional responsibilities sometimes works out in the abuse Joyce Echaquan experienced. Echaquan was the Atikamekw woman from a small community who, this past September, had no choice but to seek treatment at a hospital in a larger centre, the city of Joliette, Quebec. As she lay dying, the Atikamekw patient filmed two nurses uttering racial slurs and derogatory insults to her.

It is a brutal piece of film, which resulted in at least one firing and more than one solemn political pledge to do better in the future. But Echaquan's horrible end-of-life ordeal also points to the degree to which Indigenous communities so severely lack control over the basic services they need, and are at the mercy of the settler-colonial state.

Money and resources for First Nations is one issue, and a quite legitimate one. But, more fundamentally, there is a need for sustainable self-government.

Since the federal-provincial conferences on Aboriginal self-government following the adoption of the Constitution Act of 1982, and the subsequent Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Canada has held out the promise of a fulsome recognition of First Nations' right to run their own affairs, including, crucially, the right to fully benefit from the natural resources on their traditional territories.

But it's a promise no government has even made baby steps to deliver.

It is salutary that the current government does not, as did its predecessor, seek to nickel and dime First Nations. But, in the long term, we will only see genuine and lasting prosperity among First Nations when federal and provincial governments fully recognize Indigenous peoples' ownership of and control over their lands and natural resources.

That would be the basis for truly meaningful self-government. It would also mean, in the future, that First Nations communities would be better able to weather pandemics such as the one we are living through now.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Marc Miller/Twitter​

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