Thinking Longer Term: Covid on First Nations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

The pandemic is showing us the consequences of not adequately addressing housing and health care issues on Indigenous communities in Manitoba.

Back in April 2020, I wrote an editorial that showed how Indigenous communities – while protected at first from the pandemic because of their isolated locations – were also a “perfect storm” for a disaster given the overcrowded housing conditions and low health indicators on many reserve communities. At the start, Indigenous communities in Manitoba shut down their communities, which prevented the infections that urban communities experienced. However, the situation has worsened.

Last week, the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team stated that 49 of the 63 First Nations in the province had active COVID-19 cases, doubling since December of last year. This is due to the recent Omicron variant outbreak.

Some First Nation community say that they have been “overwhelmed” by the situation andome communities have declared states of emergency.

However, AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas observes that Indigenous communities have come together and worked well during the early stages of the pandemic. They have kept lines of communication open with the federal government and many community leaders acted quickly to encourage band members to respect good health practices and follow pre-cautions.

There is only so much public authorities and following policies can do to mitigate the conditions on reserves that will continue to be a challenge over the next few months.

Once the Covid abates, and it will, Indigenous leaders need to move on issues that make Indigenous communities vulnerable to pandemics and other public health crises.

On health care, Indigenous communities need to be innovative and work more with the province on localizing health care for reserve residents. First Nations in the North lack access to hospitals and other health care amenities. Perhaps the time has come to depend less on Indigenous Services Canada and more on working with provincial authorities?

More outside the box, we need to have a frank discussion about lifestyle/diet issues that have disproportionately impacted Indigenous peoples.  About 80% of Covid deaths occur among, generally unhealthy obese individuals who suffer from other illnesses like diabetes, heart disease etc.   More exercise, better dieting practices, and healthier lifestyle choices are keys to lower Covid mortality.

Overcrowded housing is a long-standing issue that the federal government and provincial governments should make as much a priority – even more so – than broadband internet access. Enough experts have said that government housing programs are not the way to deal with housing shortages and waiting lists. Manny Jules – a prominent past B.C. Indigenous chief and head of the First Nation Tax Commission – once said that if First Nations wait for the government to address housing, they will be waiting for well over a century. Ideally, families could own their own housing by having property rights on First Nations like other Canadians.

First Nation governments also need to operate housing programs more like businesses and ensure that housing authorities keep politics out of program delivery. The best governed Indigenous communities across the Prairies keep politics out of administration.

Right now, Indigenous communities will soldier on in addressing this crisis, but the first order of business as things get better is to vastly improve housing and health care on reserves before the next crisis comes.

Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org