Over 450 Indigenous COVID-19 cases across Canada and 7 deaths, reports Yellowhead Institute

There are at least 465 Indigenous COVID-19 cases across 42 communities and seven virus-related deaths, far above what is reported by Indigenous Services Canada, according to a report released Tuesday by the Yellowhead Institute.

Indigenous Services Canada's COVID-19 case count failing to reflect true picture, says report

A highway checkpoint at Green Lake, Sask., in late April. There are travel restrictions to and within northern Saskatchewan due to COVID-19. (Don Somers/CBC)

There are at least 465 Indigenous COVID-19 cases across 42 communities and seven virus-related deaths, far above what is reported by Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), according to a report released Tuesday by the Yellowhead Institute.

A team of researchers supported by the Yellowhead Institute compiled the numbers by combing through media reports, band council updates to members, confidential local reports and obituaries. 

"ISC continues to release numbers that don't provide the whole picture," said the Yellowhead Institute report. 

"By only reporting what is happening on-reserve, the realities of Indigenous Peoples are erased. Indigenous Peoples do not only live on-reserve, nor do they live in 'distinction-based' silos in urban and rural places."

The Yellowhead Institute is a think-tank based out of Ryerson University's Faculty of Arts,

ISC has reported there were 183 COVID-19 cases on-reserve in five provinces, 18 hospitalizations and two deaths as of May 11. 

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ISC, which has admitted it has a data gap, reports only on-reserve COVID-19 cases and it relies on information either voluntarily provided by First Nations or from provincial and territorial health authorities. 

Courtney Skye started tracking COVID-19 data in Indigenous communities last month. (Submitted by Courtney Skye)

Courtney Skye, a research fellow at the institute and author of the report, said the institute's numbers are based on compiling on and off-reserve First Nations, Inuit and Métis COVID-19 cases.

"This is just the information available publicly," said Skye.

"There are likely more cases."

'Patchwork of service'

The report said Indigenous people are subject to a patchwork of services and ongoing jurisdictional battles between Ottawa and the provinces that undermines data on the true impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples and communities, said the report. 

"There is no agency or organization in Canada reliably recording and releasing COVID-19 data that indicates whether or not a person is Indigenous," said the report. 

"This patchwork of service is a direct result of colonialism . . . The jurisdictional fight between provinces and the federal government, where both claim the other is responsible for services, more often than not leaves Indigenous people without any services."

Separately, CBC News has obtained numbers from the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) in British Columbia that shows it is keeping track of off-reserve cases. 

The FNHA provides health services to First Nations people in British Columbia under a tripartite agreement with B.C. and Ottawa.

A May 7 report from the FNHA, said that as of May 4 there were a total of 69 First Nations COVID-19 cases in B.C. — 37 in or near a community and 32 off-reserve. 

ISC's B.C. tally for that day matched the FNHA's in-community tally, but excluded the off-reserve numbers.

The Yellowhead report said another example of the data gap exists in Saskatchewan, where the department reported 43 COVID-19 cases on reserve as of May 11. 

The report notes there is a serious outbreak in the northern Saskatchewan community of La Loche. On Monday, the province reported 151 active COVID-19 cases in its Far North region, the majority of which are in the village and neighbouring Clearwater River Dene Nation. 

"La Loche, often identified as a Dene community with reserves nearby, provides a glimpse into how taking a distinction-based approach is impractical when First Nations and Métis communities are so interconnected," said the report. 

"It is presumed that all … cases in La Loche are Indigenous people as the majority of the people in the community are Dene and Métis. Additionally, Saskatchewan is the only province with COVID-19 cases reported in Métis communities."

Another gap exists in Ontario, the report said, where the Chiefs of Ontario organization is reporting a total of 79 cases, 44 on-reserve and 35 off reserve, as of May 12.

On May 11, ISC reported 41 on-reserve cases in Ontario.

'Jurisdictional web'

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he knows his department's data is only partial as a result of jurisdictional challenges.

"What you get is a jurisdictional web that is difficult to navigate on a good day," said Miller.

He said ISC knows how many COVID-19 test kits are made available to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. It also receives information from First Nations that choose to report their numbers to the federal department. 

"We will not report on a community that has chosen not to report its data, and it's out of respect," said Miller.

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller speaks at a press conference on COVID-19 at West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wed. March 25, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Miller said the department has a less reliable grip on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Métis communities and First Nations populations off-reserve. 

For that, he said, they rely almost exclusively on data that would be reported to ISC by the provinces based on their gathering of data that has broad ethno-cultural identifiers — and that don't always get filled out.

"We communicate regularly with provinces and tell them the importance of having that data collection point with respect to ethno-cultural identifiers. It's critical to getting a sense of how this epidemic is impacting and how we deal with it in the immediate term," said Miller.

Quebec, for example, has an ethnocultural identifier used on testing forms that allows someone getting tested to self-identify as First Nations, Inuit, or living in a remote area that does not have access to a hospital. 

Ontario has a box to check if you are First Nations, Inuit or Métis.

"I think we all could do more," said Miller.

"Right now the data on Indigenous populations across Canada is partial, and the reflection of a divide that exists on-reserve and off-reserve but also with the various jurisdictional distinctions that exist in Canada."


  • A previous version of this story cited numbers for First Nations COVID-19 cases in Ontario from the report that were incorrect. As of May 12, the Chiefs of Ontario organization is reporting a total of 79 cases.
    May 13, 2020 2:25 PM ET