To date, federal and provincial governments have offered very few details about their pandemic measures, aside from daily updates on COVID-19 numbers and their health advice—avoid non-essential travel; practice social and physical distancing; self-isolation and monitoring for symptoms; and proper hygiene (washing hands).
Canada’s Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller today announced that $305 million has been approved for Indigenous-specific funding, including $215 million for First Nations, $45 million for Inuit, $30 million for Métis and $15 million for urban and Indigenous organizations. No funding was announced to specifically address the gendered impacts of this pandemic on Indigenous women, nor was there any funding allocated to simultaneously address the ongoing genocide crisis. This omission is part of a long-standing series of omissions by Canada to ensure Indigenous women and girls enjoy basic human rights protections from abuse, exploitation, violence and death.
Indigenous peoples are an especially vulnerable group in Canada, due to centuries of genocidal laws and policies that have created and maintained severe socio-economic conditions in Indigenous families, communities and Nations. Staggering rates of poverty are one of the primary root causes of Indigenous peoples’ premature death rates by upwards of 15 years earlier than non-Indigenous Canadians. Indigenous peoples suffer from disease rates four times the national average; unintentional injuries at rates three and a half times higher; and infant mortality rates that are three times higher. Indigenous girls have the highest rates of mortality in Canada—more than six times the national average. Nationally, 47 percent of First Nations children live in poverty, and in provinces like Manitoba, that rate jumps to 76 percent and continues to increase. Within these statistics are the often overlooked facts that the poverty of these children are directly related to the poverty of their mothers—Indigenous women—many of whom are single parents.
The statistics paint a bleak picture for Indigenous women and girls. Indigenous women have higher rates of suicide attempts overall and those who have had their children taken into foster care have significantly higher suicide attempts and completions. Add to this the fact that despite being only four percent of the Canadian female population, they represent at least 25 percent of female murder victims. They are the number one target of human traffickers and serial killers, as well other segments of society. Indigenous women and girls have been regularly targeted for sexualized violence by police officers and have suffered from physical and sexual abuse in state institutions like residential schools, Indian hospitals and prisons for decades. Indigenous women represent 42 percent of the federal prison population and are the fastest growing prison population overall. Indigenous girls represent 60 percent of youth in corrections, but in provinces like Saskatchewan, those numbers can be as as high as 85 percent. We also know from the statistics, that 91 percent of Indigenous women and girls in prisons have suffered physical or sexual abuse.
Every level of government and state agency in Canada has had a hand in creating and maintaining the worst socio-economic conditions for Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women and girls. Their continued failures to address ongoing genocide puts Indigenous women and girls at higher risk for infection and death from COVID-19. Indigenous women and girls in prisons and youth corrections are literally trapped in institutions well-known for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and a critical lack of access to healthcare. Add to this the number of Indigenous girls over-represented in the foster care system living in group homes, travelling back and forth between youth corrections and foster homes or living on the streets, and we see a recipe for disaster. Indigenous women are also overrepresented in the homeless population. COVID-19 has already hit the homeless and prisons. If we do not act now, we could see far higher rates of infection and death in Indigenous women and girls than during previous pandemics.
During the H1N1 pandemic, Indigenous peoples were only 4 percent of the population but represented 28 percent of hospital admissions and 18 percent of the deaths. Indigenous women are far more likely to be the caretakers of children, elderly parents and extended family members. For those in the work force, they are more likely to be working in helping professions—like health care, social work and education—placing them in direct contact with people and increasing their risks of infection.
Canada’s pandemic response must include a gendered lens that not only develops emergency measures for Indigenous peoples developed in partnership with Indigenous governments, but it must include a plan to address the specific vulnerabilities of Indigenous women and girls, done in partnership with Indigenous women.
Federal and provincial governments need to work urgently with Indigenous women’s organizations and experts to develop a gendered plan, one that includes significant targeted funding across a wide array of social supports, to address their specific vulnerabilities.
Indigenous women and girls need a comprehensive plan that includes:
- A targeted decarceration plan with corresponding post-release supports;
- An infusion of emergency funding for child welfare agencies dealing with Indigenous children in care and the added supports and protections these children and their families will need to stay health and connected;
- Funding and infrastructure to maintain and expand emergency domestic abuse and rape crisis shelters so that Indigenous women and girls will not be trapped by the virus into staying in dangerous situations;
- Targeted housing on and off reserve for Indigenous women and children to keep them off the streets away from the virus;
- Expedited Indian registration for children who are newly entitled to registration under Bill S-3 so that they can access critical uninsured health benefits;
- Safe childcare spots for Indigenous women who work on the frontlines of the pandemic, including in social work, nurses, medical supports, retail, and janitorial, etc;
- Basic income allowance for Indigenous women caring for children, elderly parents and/or extended family members;
- Emergency support payments to allow Indigenous women to buy sufficient food, water and medical supplies during this period of self-isolation; and
- The immediate removal of all man-camps located at or near Indigenous communities to reduce the rates of violence and the risks of infections from mass gatherings of workers.
While this is by no means a comprehensive pandemic plan, it is critical for governments at all levels to turn their minds to the ways in which Indigenous women and girls require targeted supports. If the current federal budget represents the extent of their Indigenous pandemic measures, then we have serious cause for concern. In the current crisis context of ongoing genocide against Indigenous women and girls, it is critically urgent to develop a gendered pandemic plan now.
Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She is a longtime CD columnist, and has been a practicing lawyer for 20 years. Currently, Pam is a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
What a difference a month makes.
In February, many Canadians joined Shut Down Canada protests and blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. A month later, the streets in most Canadian cities are empty and Canadians are supporting a different kind of shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19.
It’s been a whole new kind of March madness.
But while many Canadians are staying home and practicing social distancing to flatten the curve (itself an act of social solidarity with healthcare workers and vulnerable members of the population), now is not the time to turn inwards. We can’t afford to ignore the world outside of our own homes. Neither should practicing social distancing mean silencing our calls for social justice.
We must remain vigilant in these tumultuous times.
As Naomi Klein outlines in her bestselling book The Shock Doctrine, national emergencies often serve as catalysts for predatory economic practices known as “disaster capitalism.” In moments of profound shock and crisis, like natural disasters, wars, and global pandemics such as COVID-19, the rich and powerful can exploit the public’s disorientation and push forward ideas, policies, and practices that prioritize profit over people.
The same holds true for colonialism. Around the world, moments of crisis are also used to continue colonialism under cover of disaster, to borrow Klein’s phraseology.
Here in Canada, we are seeing many examples of how capitalist accumulation by colonial dispossession is continuing amidst the current pandemic.
Although Shut Down Canada actions have now ceased, the Wet’suwet’en struggle to assert their sovereignty and prevent Coastal GasLink’s construction of a pipeline through their unceded territory continues. In fact, while most Canadians have been preoccupied with news of the rapid spread of COVID-19, CGL, with support from the RCMP, has resumed its work in Wet’suwet’en territory, much to the dismay of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Moreover, with the drop in oil and gas prices, KKR, an American private equity firm with a record of putting profits over employees, people, and the environment, has plans to purchase 65% of the Coastal GasLink pipeline with Alberta Investment Management Corp. It is clear that billionaire oil and gas CEOs see the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to push through their resource development plans that not only put Indigenous communities at risk of infection but also guarantee environmental degradation.
The coronavirus crisis is also testing Indigenous sovereignty. On March 18, citizens in the Nunavut community of Rankin Inlet blocked a road leading to the Agnico-Eagle Meliadine gold mine to help stop the spread of COVID-19. They wanted to prevent a planeload of itinerant workers from travelling to the mine for work. Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, had asked non-essential people from outside the territory not to travel to Nunavut, and the residents of Rankin Inlet felt that the mine’s operation was not essential. Agnico-Eagle Meliadine disagreed and is bringing in workers from outside the territory to continue mining during the pandemic.
Similarly, the Haida Nation has asked tourists to stop visiting in an effort to protect citizens from the spread of COVID-19; however, many tourists are still flocking to Haida Gwaii for a holiday. The islands have two small hospitals with a limited number of beds and medical equipment, including just two ventilators. Though Pacific Coast Airlines, which flies from Vancouver to Masset, has now suspended flights to Haida Gwaii, BC Ferries is continuing its service from Prince Rupert to Skidegate and is transporting many outside tourists to the islands.
In Alberta, the United Conservative Party is using the coronavirus crisis and the drop in oil prices to backtrack on some of its promises. In late February, the UCP introduced a draconian budget, complete with plans to close 20 parks and recreational sites and turn over another 164 to private management. The government stressed, though, that it would not be selling off any Crown land and promised that it would instead enter into negotiations with municipalities and First Nations in the province to transfer land for local management. Just last week, however, the UCP announced that it had changed its mind and is now putting a 65-hectare grassland near Taber in the Treaty 7 region up for auction on March 31, with a starting bid of $440,000. This kind of disaster dispossession fits the mould of the “shock doctrine”—a right-wing government using a crisis to push through controversial ideas that prioritize private profit.
Though capitalists and colonial politicians often use emergencies to advance exploitative agendas, Klein argues that crises can also catalyze popular resistance. Catastrophes such as the current global pandemic bring our priorities into focus and can open up new opportunities to develop wider relations of compassion, reciprocity, and solidarity. Crises also make space for new ideas that we can use to radically transform society and put people before profit. Why bailout oil and gas companies who contribute to the climate crisis and ignore Indigenous rights when we can instead invest in health care, education, affordable housing, and renewable energy?
While we are all doing our best to adapt to the changing circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis, we must ensure that our isolation does not lead to collective complacency. Now is the time to double-down on our demands for justice and to distance ourselves from capitalism and colonialism.
Sean Carleton is a historian of Indigenous-settler relations and an Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University. He is also a member of the Canadian Dimension Coordinating Committee.