'Disrespectful': Urban Indigenous population feels short-changed by federal COVID-19 response

The urban Indigenous population is being marginalized by the federal government's COVID-19 funding strategy, say witnesses who testified Tuesday before the House of Commons standing committee on health.

Indigenous Services Canada calls $15M for urban and off-reserve needs just a start

Atikamekw youth play the drums at the Lac-Saint-Jean Native Friendship Centre. (Mélissa Paradis/Radio-Canada)

The urban Indigenous population is being marginalized by the federal government's COVID-19 funding strategy, say witnesses who testified Tuesday before the House of Commons standing committee on health.

Ottawa has allocated $15 million out of its $305 million Indigenous Community Support Fund to Indigenous organizations and communities that provide services to Indigenous people living in urban centres or off reserves through a call for proposals, which opened April 6 and closed April 13.

Indigenous leaders say it's not enough. They're calling for off-reserve funding to be increased to take into account the fact that more than half of the Indigenous population lives in urban centres.

"The fact that there was a structure that was that underfunded and competitive was ... to me, it was disrespectful," said Christopher Sheppard-Buote, president of the National Association of Friendship Centres.

"You are asking people to say, like, you are kind of Indigenous, not Indigenous enough to be trusted, to be given resources to support people."

Christopher Sheppard-Buote, president of the National Association of Friendship Centres, is calling for more funding for the off-reserve and urban Indigenous COVID-19 response. (CBC )

The request for increased funding for Indigenous people living in urban areas was supported by Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of Manitoba's Southern Chiefs' Organization, which has half of its members living off-reserve.

"Chiefs are receiving calls every day asking for help," Daniels said.

The National Association of Friendship Centres was informed yesterday that it will be receiving $3.75 million from Ottawa for 100 different organizations to deal with COVID-19, said executive director Jocelyn Formsma, who added she is not sure when the money will be delivered.

'Jurisdictional wrangling' delayed early COVID-19 response

Formsma said "jurisdictional wrangling" had an effect on her association's early response to COVID-19. She said her association was punted between Indigenous Services Canada, the provinces and territories over the question of who should be responsible for financing their needs.

"This led to a lot of running around for friendship centres and nobody fully taking responsibility," Formsma said.

"We just want to ensure that urban Indigenous voices are considered, that our communities are considered in whatever approaches are taken to respond to this pandemic."

Some friendship centres have been shut down, but all are still operating in some capacity, said Formsma. She added that many centres don't have any personal protective equipment and are running out of supplies in their food banks.

Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health at Indigenous Services Canada, left, and Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller leave a press conference on COVID-19 in West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 19, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has said that the $305 million envelope is just the beginning of Ottawa's financial commitment to the Indigenous COVID-19 response. 

"We know more support will be needed and we are actively working to identify and deliver the supports and to make sure no Indigenous community is left behind," said a spokesperson for Miller in an email statement to CBC News.

"We understands that Indigenous Peoples living in urban centres face unique needs and challenges."

From the fund, $215 million has been allocated to First Nations, $45 million to Inuit and $30 million to Métis.

The $15 million set aside for the off-reserve and urban Indigenous population will be divided between organizations, such as the friendship centres, the Métis Settlements General Council of Alberta and Métis in the Northwest Territories, according to the department.

Inuit leader calls for Emergencies Act in Nunavut

The committee also heard from Inuit leaders who have seen their communities in northern Quebec hit by COVID-19.

The Inuit community of Nunavik has reported 14 cases.

The threat posed by COVID-19 to Inuit led Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. President Aluki Kotierk to call for the federal government to take the drastic action of invoking the Emergencies Act in Nunavut. 

"In our view, although we don't have a confirmed COVID-19 case yet, we know that the capacity financially and in terms of human resources is not what it needs to be in our territorial public government," Kotierk said.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization representing Inuit, has not taken a position on the Emergencies Act, but its president has spoken to the federal government about a military response. 

The organization's president, Natan Obed, said overcrowding in Inuit communities puts Inuit at higher risk of infection. In Inuit homelands, Obed said, 52 per cent live in overcrowded homes.

Obed is calling for a ramping-up of testing across Inuit homelands. 

Remote communities can expect to have rapid test kits available by early May, said Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer for Indigenous Services Canada.

Aluki Kotierk, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., told the committee she wants the federal government to implement the Emergencies Act in Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Forty-one mobile medical units and 17 multi-purpose mobile trailers have been secured by Indigenous Services Canada for deployment in remote communities where there isn't enough infrastructure, said Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister, First Nations and Inuit Health Branch.

Since January, Wong said, roughly 160,000 gowns, something under 500,000 gloves, close to 200,000 surgical masks and 90,000 N-95 masks have been distributed to First Nations from the national stockpile of personal protective equipment. 

Wong said there are about 20 to 30 requests waiting to be processed every day. 


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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