Assembly of First Nations declares state of emergency, as B.C. chiefs call for Ottawa to do the same

The country's largest Indigenous organization declared a state of emergency on Monday to ensure First Nations — which face elevated risks from an outbreak — don't get forgotten in the face of the broadening COVID-19 pandemic across the country, according to a regional chief. 

‘Historically, First Nations communities have been devastated by pandemics’

The Assembly of First Nations declared a national state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic. Picture here is of AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The country's largest Indigenous organization declared a state of emergency on Monday to ensure First Nations, whose people face elevated risks from an outbreak, aren't forgotten in the broadening COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which represents 643 First Nations across the country, passed the motion Monday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the First Nations Leadership Council in British Columbia called on the federal government to declare a state of emergency, as well.

Manitoba AFN regional Chief Kevin Hart said the AFN's state of emergency motion is necessary because there is a national consensus among health care workers that First Nations are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to overcrowding, nursing shortages and low health indicators.

Hart said said First Nations will need more than the $305 million promised by the federal government to Indigenous communities for dealing with COVID-19. The announced funds are barely enough to cover the needs of the 96 remote First Nations, said Hart. 

"Clearly, it's inadequate," he said.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has pledged that no Indigenous community would be "left behind" in COVID-19 preparations. Miller told CBC News last Friday that the promised funding is "not a capped amount" and that it would flow shortly after Parliament's expected passage this week of a broader multi-billion-dollar COVID-19 aid package.

Assembly of First Nations Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart said First Nations can't be forgotten as all governments grapple with COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC News)

A number of First Nations across the country have already called their own states of emergencies, with some closing their borders and requiring members returning form urban centres to self-isolate for 14 days.

Hart said the motion was passed to alert the federal, provincial and territorial governments that First Nations need to be kept a priority, even as health agencies across the country grapple with rising COVID-19 outbreaks and limited medical supplies. 

"This would be the first time that a national state of emergency has been called in order to get governments ... to participate and help in the aid of COVID-19," said Hart. 

"We are saying right now we need to ensure we have the proper resources and that we are not forgotten when it comes to supply and demand in our First Nations."

B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Terry Teegee says the federal government needs to declare a state of emergency. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The First Nations Leadership Council in B.C. on Monday also called on the federal government to declare a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Prime Minister Trudeau must take immediate and sweeping action to declare a national state of emergency before the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through First Nations and vulnerable communities," said B.C. AFN Regional Chief Terry Teegee, in a press release on Monday. 

"Historically, First Nations communities have been devastated by pandemics and we must take decisive action now before we see our community and family members fall ill."

Social distancing difficult in small communities

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that all options remain on the table and on Monday warned that the federal government would act if citizens did not follow calls to stay in the homes unless necessary and practice social distancing.

A state of emergency allows governments to exercise extraordinary powers that essentially suspend rights during a time of crisis. Several provinces, including B.C., declared a state of emergency last week — so have other jurisdictions like the City of Vancouver.

Cheryl Casimer, with the First Nations Summit, said the response to this pandemic "has to be the same across the country for us to be able to have any kind of control over the spread of the virus."

The leadership council is also encouraging individual First Nations to declare their own states of emergency. Many First Nations have already taken steps to isolate their communities from outsiders and are urging self-isolation and social distancing. 

But Casimer is concerned some people in communities aren't taking these calls seriously. 

A national state of emergency could ensure there are enforcement mechanisms for people who aren't complying, "whether that's calling on the RCMP, or your leadership, to take necessary steps," she said.

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She said social distancing can be hard in smaller communities where everybody's related.

"It's really hard to get it through to people that you can't be having gatherings and you need to stay home. I think we all see it happening in our communities but a lot of it is with our young people who think they're invincible." 

Indigenous populations overall have distinct risk factors when it comes to COVID-19 based on social and economic inequalities. 

But the leadership council said it's the small, remote First Nations that are at particularly high risk to the COVID-19 pandemic because people lack access to health services like urgent respiratory care. 

Ucluelet First Nation drafting emergency legislation 

The Ucluelet First Nation, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island,  is currently drafting legislation to trigger a state of emergency. The nation says this will allow them to deal with traffic flow, restrict access to the community and require people to self-isolate. 

"These times we are living in today are not like what our ancestors lived through," wrote President Chuck McCarthy in an update to the nation. 

Residents at the Wikwemikong Nursing Home took to social media this week to share the importance of social distancing and self-isolation during the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Wikwemikong Nursing Home)

He said he's concerned that some people aren't taking the pandemic seriously and urged people that it's critical to practice social distancing. 

"We have the opportunity now to start practicing this social distancing, which in our culture is foreign; if you have trouble with this look at your grandma, gramps, your children, your loved ones, your siblings and picture them catching this virus. It's hard to imagine," he wrote. 

McCarthy said the nation has already gated the community to restrict access, which will hopefully prevent the virus from getting in. 

He's also hoping that tourists will stop coming to the region during the pandemic. 

Several First Nations and municipalities across B.C. have been asking people not to visit during the pandemic and the First Nations Health Authority has advised against any unnecessary travel. 

$305M committed to Indigenous communities

In addition to allowing for more strict enforcement around self-isolating and social distancing, the leadership council said a national state of emergency should make it easier for First Nations and others to access funds as necessary. 

Last week, the federal government announced it would be spending $305 million to help Indigenous communities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous communities are also able to draw from a separate $100 million fund that is part of an existing public health fund. 

AFN's Teegee said each of the 204 First Nations in B.C. will receive a base amount to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and other funds will be released based on applications citing specific needs, e.g. orders of personal protective equipment like face masks and gowns. 

By calling for a federal state of emergency, "it demonstrates that First Nations are serious about this and perhaps will need more resources than the $305 million that was allocated," Teegee said.

Last week, the prime minister said his government was examining the emergencies act to determine how it could be used for this pandemic. If it did invoke the act, it would be under the public welfare emergency category.