Indigenous Communities Are a Perfect Storm for This Kind of Outbreak

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, COVID-19, Joseph Quesnel

The federal government has a mixed record on helping Indigenous communities deal with pandemics and other outbreaks. In the case of COVID-19, Ottawa must ensure it gets it right. For many reasons, Indigenous communities are a perfect storm for this kind of outbreak. 

In 2009, during the height of the swine flu epidemic, Health Canada came under hot water for sending dozens of body bags to remote Manitoba reserves in addition to hand sanitizers and face masks. Leaders from the remote northern reserves of Wasagamack and God’s River First Nation did not understand if Ottawa was sending them a cryptic message about the disease. 

In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government was wise to direct a portion of the monies to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak to First Nation communities. However, both Ottawa and Indigenous communities need to ensure the money spent addresses the unique challenges of the many remote and poverty-stricken communities. 

Indigenous leaders – including the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) – reacted skeptically to the $305 million Indigenous community support fund that came amid the $82 billion COVID-19 economic relief package. 

Grand Chief Joel Abram of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians argued that this aid package would run out quite quickly. Abram used a simple calculation, stating that with 600-plus First Nations in Canada, the aid package would only stretch so far. 

However, is this the right way to view the monies allocated? Should we not rather look towards outcomes, rather than just the amount given? 

So often Indigenous leaders and the federal government – especially during federal budget time – point to amounts spent rather than outcomes achieved. Abram could very well be correct, but we need a much better specific plan for how to deal with the outbreak should it reach First Nation communities. 

Ottawa is certainly right in being concerned about First Nations communities in relation to COVID-19. Overcrowded housing on so many First Nation communities and a lack of social distance make for convenient breeding of the infection. Also, the health conditions on many reserves are well below many other communities. 

While First Nations often have a younger population due to a burgeoning population over the last few decades, the state of health of the existing population is often poorer, making them still more susceptible to a pandemic. 

In 2016, medical authorities recognized that the rates of type 2 diabetes were much higher among First Nations – especially among men – than elsewhere in Canada. These same medical authorities have described diabetes itself as an ongoing epidemic on many reserves. 

Diabetes is one of the pre-existing conditions that can make COVID-19 infection much worse, often requiring hospitalization. 

Processed foods from the few stores on reserves do not encourage a healthy diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle that contributes to growing rates of obesity. 

If an outbreak were to occur on a reserve, it would likely spread quickly and given the high incidence of at-risk factors among the population, it could very well kill many. 

Due to the lack of access to medical facilities on many reserves, this could affect the Indigenous population in a much worse way. Often, First Nation people need to travel – many are often airlifted if they live in the many isolated fly-in communities – to the nearest hospital because many reserves only have a single nursing station. Thus, obviously, access to oxygen tanks and ventilators would be quite low. 

Indigenous Services Canada and Health Canada need to work closely together to get medical staff and equipment closer to these communities. Many Indigenous communities have already wisely closed their communities to outside visitors, and many have declared states of emergency within their territories. These are all important first steps. Even the AFN declared a state of emergency on all First Nations on March 24th

This is certainly no time for any jurisdictional squabbles between Indigenous communities and the various government departments that service them. This admonition applies to Indigenous organizations as well. In its motion declaring a state of emergency, the AFN also stated that “First Nations leadership [shou] be fully and meaningfully involved at the decision-making tables in the development of all plans, legislation, policies, budget allocations and regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic federally and provincially.” 

Upon a superficial reading, this sounds quite reasonable, but in the past, especially as it pertains to government legislation, the AFN has often used various Indigenous sovereignty claims to scuttle or even sometimes defeat important measures. So, the above quotation could be a coded message or signal that jurisdictional battles might be ahead. One hopes that is a wrong interpretation, but we will see. 

Thus, all levels of governments need to work together and develop a detailed strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak if it begins to affect Indigenous communities. To be clear, the immediate and overriding focus should be on outcomes rather than amounts. Otherwise, we are doomed to the old funding battles between Ottawa and First Nations communities, which everyone can agree is the last thing we need. 


Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.