British Columbia

Advocates call for B.C. to collect COVID-19 data specific to urban Indigenous people

Urban Indigenous advocates are adding their voices to those calling for better data on race and mortality from COVID-19, in light of a growing body of research that shows communities with larger populations of visible minorities have been harder hit by the disease than the general population. 

Indigenous people in cities may be dealing with poor health, housing that makes them vulnerable, says doctor

Vancouver ALIVE executive director Scott Clark says health authorities are doing a disservice to urban Indigenous people by not revealing the number diagnosed with COVID-19 in Metro Vancouver. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

Urban Indigenous advocates are adding their voices to those calling for better data on race and mortality from COVID-19, in light of a growing body of research that shows communities with larger populations of visible minorities have been harder hit by the disease than the general population. 

Scott Clark, executive director of Vancouver ALIVE, an urban Indigenous advocacy organization, is concerned by the recent news that neighbourhoods with more visible minorities are seeing higher rates of death from COVID-19. 

He would like to see cases among urban Indigenous people tracked and reported. 

"We just don't have any information from any source, be it from the federal government or from the provincial government or the health authorities," Clark says. 

Higher instances of poverty, chronic diseases and historical vulnerability to pandemics make Indigenous people living in cities more vulnerable to COVID-19, he says. 

According to the B.C. government, more than 78 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban areas. 

The B.C. Ministry of Health has said it is not collecting data on race, with the exception of data on Indigeneity. However, the data is being collected along with the Métis Nation of British Columbia and the First Nations Health Authority which will decide who sees the information and how it's used.

The data is being collected through case report forms, which allow for Indigenous self-identification, a spokesperson said.  

Manitoba reports Indigenous data

In comparison, Manitoba is collecting and reporting data on Indigenous people living both on and off reserve. 

Dr. Marcia Anderson, who leads the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 pandemic response coordination team, says urban and on-reserve Indigenous people share the same factors that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, such as higher instances of diabetes, hypertension and blood diseases, as well as overcrowded, poor quality housing.

But those factors play out differently in cities, leaving urban Indigenous people just as — if not more vulnerable, Anderson said. 

Many urban Indigenous people rent in low-income neighbourhoods, where there's often no private bedroom or bathroom in a crowded apartment to self-isolate if required, she says. 

Pandemic response on and off reserve is also a factor, Anderson says. On reserve, First Nation administrations can restrict entry to the communities and close schools. Urban Indigenous people can't do that, she says. 

Health-care delivery is another factor. On-reserve delivery is federal jurisdiction. Urban Indigenous people, on the other hand, have to navigate provincial, regional and private health-care systems to get care, Anderson says.

'The more severe illnesses are off reserve'

Winnipeg presents a stark example of how COVID-19 can impact urban Indigenous people in particular, Anderson says. 

When CBC News spoke to Anderson on Nov. 25, there were 85 Indigenous COVID-19 patients in hospital. Of those, 67 were urban residents, while 18 were from reserves, she said. 

As well, of the 21 Indigenous people with COVID-19 in intensive care on that date, 17 were urban, four were from reserves. And of 34 deaths from COVID-19, 21 were urban and 13 on reserve.

For comparison, about 48 per cent of Indigenous Manitobans live off reserve; 52 per cent live on reserve. 

"The more severe illnesses are off reserve," she says. "As the spread of the virus increases, structurally disadvantaged communities are going to be more and more impacted."

As for Clark, he says he doesn't want to see Metro Vancouver become another Winnipeg. 

"We need the data. We know we need it. We can't plan without it," Clark says. "And if we don't recognize how this can impact our population, then we're not doing everything that we can to be preventative in nature to support our folks."


Wawmeesh Hamilton is an award winning associate producer with CBC Vancouver. He produces the nationally syndicated column Urban Nations: stories about urban Indigenous people across Canada. His work about Indigenous people and reconciliation has also been published on CBC Radio, CBC Online and CBC Indigenous. His radio documentary Not Alone won the 2020 jack Webster Award for best feature and enterprise reporting. Wawmeesh graduated from the UBC Graduate School of Journalism in 2016. He lives in Vancouver and is a member of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C.