The Sunday Edition

What COVID-19 means for urban Indigenous communities

More than 60 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada live off-reserve. Many urban Indigenous organizations worry the people they serve are particularly vulnerable to COVID-1, and could fall through the cracks. Leslie Varley, the executive director of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, discusses her concerns about the impact COVID-19 will have on Indigenous people in Canadian cities.
Leslie Varley is the executive director of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres. (Submitted by Leslie Varley)
Listen32:37

First Nations are bracing for what will happen if COVID-19 reaches their doors. Some have declared their own states of emergency, and are banning outsiders to prevent COVID-19 from infecting their communities.

But it is impossible to capture the full picture of Indigenous health in Canada without looking at urban Indigenous communities. 

More than 60 per cent of Indigenous people in Canada live off-reserve. Many urban Indigenous organizations worry the people they serve are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and could fall through the cracks. 

Leslie Varley, the executive director of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright about what COVID-19 means for urban Indigenous people. 

Here are excerpts from their conversation, which have been edited for clarity and condensed.


What COVID-19 means for urban Indigenous communities

We do have a lot of Indigenous people living in urban centres, particularly in British Columbia where our number is 85 per cent. You mentioned 60 per cent nationwide. In B.C. it's 85 per cent. So we have some pretty serious concerns about the coronavirus and how it's impacting us: food insecurity, violence against women and children and elders. Homelessness is a huge concern for us, because we're finding that people don't want to be dealing with the homeless population right now. The work camps in B.C. are continuing, and we're concerned about bringing those infections into our rural community. The hydro dam is still being built in northern B.C Construction is still going on and people from out of town are still coming into those communities. Elder isolation is another big area that we're worried about as well. We're trying to figure out how we can not only get food to our elders, but keep their mental spirits high.

How COVID-19 is affecting friendship centres

Friendship centres have been around since the late 1960s. It was addressing the people coming out of the residential schools and deciding to move into urban communities rather than moving home to their communities. The urban Indigenous people who had left their communities and had a sense of isolation started looking out for each other. Since then we've evolved into massive service centres, where we're providing every kind of service. Children and family services are a big part of what we do. Employment training, health prevention services, counseling, mental health services, housing and shelter services. We do transition support services shelters for Indigenous women and families fleeing violence. Many of our friendship centres now have daycares. We've long delivered child development programs. And of course, language and culture revitalization has long been the founding piece of Friendship Centres.

They want to secure every bed for this crisis. We're really concerned for our people.- Leslie Varley

It's a scramble for all of us to find the right equipment [for] the services that we're providing right now. For shelter services, it's almost impossible to get masks and gloves and the cleaning supplies that we need to provide those services, to keep ourselves safe and to keep our community members safe. So it's really difficult right now.

Access to care for Indigenous people in cities such as Vancouver 

We're stretched thin in B.C. with doctors as a whole. Many of us don't have regular doctors in B.C., and a lot of Indigenous people end up going into emergency. Even for big issues like cancer and diabetes and heart disease, we actually get those diagnoses in the emergency room, and it's a terrible way to have a health care system. And right now in this crisis we're being encouraged to stay away from hospitals because you know they want to secure every bed for this crisis. We're really concerned for our people.

COVID-19 and violence against Indigenous women 

It's often women who are trying to provide food security. We have the Highway of Tears here in B.C., and we're seeing on social media that women are saying, "To heck with it, I'm going to hitchhike into Smithers or Terrace because we need groceries. We need to go to the drugstore." The transportation along that corridor has improved very little since the report came out. Northern Health runs a bus up and down the road, and the Friendship Centres have got together and run a bus from Prince Rupert to Terrace to Smithers. But those runs are often not convenient … and they can't possibly meet the need that's out there. So that's a real concern for us, that women are getting back onto the highway and hitchhiking.

This is a huge issue for us now because we don't have any services of our own.- Leslie Varley

We have very little services within our Indigenous community. We know for example that there are over 200 mainstream ending-violence programs and transition houses in B.C. Only about a dozen of those are Indigenous. The money and the support and the funding for that exists outside of our community and people are very unlikely to go … [there are] services that Indigenous women won't access, because of cultural differences. There's racism. There's comments in transition houses, in shelters, about Indigenous women having too many kids. We don't feel welcome.

So this is a huge issue for us now because we don't have any services of our own. And because of physical isolation or social isolation that's happening, and we're all stuck in our houses. We're kind of getting tired of looking at each other. So where we've got trauma in our community, from ongoing and historical colonial violence, that acts out inside the household too. So we know that women are experiencing this, and they don't have any choices right now. There isn't anywhere for them to go.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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