While Indigenous Services Canada says that the COVID-19 curve is continuing to flatten in Indigenous communities, Indigenous leaders and allies are keeping pressure on the government for more support.
Indigenous leaders from across the country called for more action by the federal government to protect their communities against further threats from COVID-19, and to bring attention to existing chronic health inequities, through a petition on change.org — which has garnered support of over 52,000 signatures as of Friday.
“Our health-care systems are depleted, and there’s so much poverty that exists within that Indigenous health care system across this country that it’s an actual miracle that we never faced as First Nations the impact that the mainstream and all the provinces have,” said Isadore Day, who is Anishinaabe from Serpent River First Nation and the former Regional Chief of Ontario.
Day attributes that success to the First Nations leaders across the country who made efforts to close down community borders to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Day signed the petition, titled Urgent resources for COVID-19 in Indigenous Communities, along with leaders such as Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Grand Chief Albin Fiddler, Dr. David Suzuki and Jesse Wente.
This is a wake up call for Minister Miller and Indigenous Services Canada.– Isadore Day
They’re asking the federal government to recognize The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); urgently enhance health-care capacity in the communities; expand and enhance testing and outbreak control; and impose travel restrictions according to the individual communities or regions.
“This is a wake up call for Minister Miller and Indigenous Services Canada,” said Day.
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) tallied that within First Nation communities there have been 352 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, 30 hospitalizations and 314 recovered cases that they are aware of as of July 16, according to a news release.
ISC stated there have also been 17 cases in Nunavik, Que., all of whom have recovered.
“The COVID-19 curve continues to flatten in First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities as leaders work tirelessly to make sure their community members have access to the most up-to-date public health information and to advocate for the support of their communities,” the release said.
Communities need resources: Day
Since the petition was posted three months ago, Day said that there has been acknowledgement from the government and some responses offered. The ISC states it’s committed $285.1 million “to support the ongoing public health response to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.”
Moving forward, he said there is still a need to build up health-care capacity within First Nations and support self-determination.
“It would be very prudent for Canada to work with First Nations communities,” said Day, who is also CEO and founder of Bimaadzwin — a First Nation consulting company that specializes in community governance, health and economic development with the goal of establishing nationhood.
“Our communities took care of themselves and they’re able to put systems in place that meet the needs of their communities — we just need the resources.”
A ‘quiet crisis’
Day also said that there is a “quiet crisis” within First Nations communities around mental health and addictions, and that is being overshadowed in the media by COVID-19 and economic issues.
“This is an unexpected anomaly in our communities and unfortunately we are probably going to review the statistics this time next year and there will have been more suicides, more overdoses, more domestic violence,” he said.
Days says that people are suffering in silence because of social distancing and isolating factors of COVID-19.
Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist, has been working with the coalition of Indigenous leaders on the petition.
“The government’s pulling billions and throwing around billions of dollars and we just don’t think enough money has been put towards the issues of Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Dr. Banerji has also been working as an independent consultant with Nishnawbe Aski Nation as part of their COVID-19 task force.
“Their situation is different and even more difficult because they’re more vulnerable in the way that there’s much more chronic disease, comorbidities, there are more people with COPD, diabetes, cancer and they’re living in overcrowded conditions,” Dr. Banerji said, adding that a virus is more likely to spread in those kinds of conditions.
“There are more and more Indigenous and non-Indigenous people saying, ‘what the hell, how can we continue to accept this?'”
While working in consultation with Indigenous leaders and community experts on the petition, Dr. Banerji says that plans for how to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak need to be transparent so that communities also know what to expect if the worst were to happen.
The petition also serves to bring attention to the chronic under-funding and lack of health-care services for Indigenous people.
While she is not Indigenous, Dr. Banerji lost her son — who was Indigenous — last year to suicide. Banerji said that she went to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto and begged them for help but they dismissed him.
“Enough is enough — we have to do more. It’s not a not an optional situation,” Dr. Banerji said.
“If we are a country that respects human rights, then we respect human rights for everyone and they need to start listening to us.”
CBC reached out to Indigenous Services Canada for comment on the status of the petition but has not received a response at the time of publication.