Indigenous communities navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic with pre-existing socio-economic challenges like poor housing conditions.

The history of Indigenous people in Canada is one filled with systematic failures and inequalities.

As the first inhabitants of the land now called Canada, Indigenous people have struggled with the effects of colonization and white settlement.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, who make up Indigenous people, still deal with the consequences of colonization.

These consequences have created socio-economic disparities in Indigenous communities compared to others in Canada.

For decades, scholars have reported on how: colonization, residential schools, racism, and stereotyping have affected the lives and experiences of Indigenous people in Canada.

Studies have highlighted how the loss of land, segregation, and uneven access to food and resources have affected the health and socio-economic well-being of Indigenous people.

Issues like housing and living conditions, income levels and education, health, food security, and representation in the criminal justice system, have been common in the discourse of systematic inequalities in Indigenous communities.

Around 1,670,000 individuals in Canada self-identified as Indigenous people in the 2016 Canadian census. That is 4.9 per cent of the total population in Canada in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Native Canadian Centre of Toronto is a membership-based, charitable organization based on Indigenous cultural traditions and teachings. Photo Credit – Tina Nalova Ikome-Likambi

However, several studies have reported on poor housing conditions of Indigenous people with issues like major repairs, mould, bug infestations, and inadequate heating being common. While Indigenous people in urban settings face limited housing availability and unemployment.

Also, researchers revealed the rate of employment for Indigenous people was lower than non-Indigenous people.

Issues like life expectancy, vaccine hesitancy, and disease outbreaks have also been studied over the years to reveal the lapses in Indigenous healthcare systems.

Indigenous people experienced these concerns for years but these issues were magnified with the advent of the coronavirus global pandemic.

Canada’s first reported case of the novel coronavirus was reported on Jan. 25, 2020, and the World Health Organization Emergency Committee declared a global health emergency on Jan. 30, 2020, based on growing cases in China and other international locations.

This led to the Canadian government setting up several health care restrictions like self-isolation, quarantining, washing hands with soap and water, lockdowns, working and schooling from home, and Covid testing.

Hence, Indigenous communities, like other communities across Canada, had to adapt to these changes and ensure the safety of residents and healthcare workers.

However, as of April 9, 25,517 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases were reported on First Nations reserves by the Government of Canada and Indigenous Services Canada.

From this number, there were 298 deaths, 678 active cases, 1,149 hospitalization cases, and 24,541 recovered cases, it stated.

These numbers show the presence of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, but the Government of Canada also reported on ongoing vaccination in these communities.

It stated, as of April 9, 614 communities have vaccinations in motion for either priority groups or all adults in communities in territories or First Nations and Inuit communities in provinces.

Also, 274,018 vaccine doses had been administered, with 68,012 of these being second doses, it stated.

Canadian Centre of Toronto is Toronto’s oldest Indigenous community organization and one of the original Friendship Centres in Canada. Photo Credit – Tina Nalova Ikome-Likambi

However, the Government of Canada stated First Nations living off-reserve, Inuit and Métis will get the COVID-19 vaccine through provincial and territorial health services.

Although Indigenous communities are currently receiving the coronavirus vaccine, these communities have dealt with the pandemic differently compared to others across Canada.

 Mainly because of their history and existing systematic issues.

One of which is the issue of housing on-reserves and in urban cities.

Housing issues and living conditions have been researched and reported on for several years mainly because of housing-related issues like overcrowding, poor living conditions, and house shortages.

Studies revealed these were some of the causes of urban migration by Indigenous people.

However, Indigenous people in urban settings also face housing issues like shortage in housing and inadequate housing.

Hence, Indigenous people on-reserve who have to self-isolate, quarantine, and stay home during the pandemic experience challenges because of poor housing conditions.

Lee Maracle, a sessional lecturer of Indigenous studies at the University of Toronto, agreed and said the pandemic is more terrible for Indigenous people because of current housing conditions.

“It gets difficult,” she said. “About 30 per cent of indigenous people don’t have running water.”

Maracle said people have to walk a long way for water and this makes it hard to keep things clean during the pandemic.

Native Canadian Centre of Toronto is a social services organization that focuses on building a healthy and vibrant urban Indigenous community in Toronto. Photo Credit – Tina Nalova Ikome-Likambi

Scholars have shown that reserves have received water drinking advisories for years. This stems from challenges in having safe drinking water and hygiene.

Under-funding and lack of infrastructure have contributed to poor water quality on reserves. Also, lack of clean water can lead to contamination and waterborne diseases.

Other studies also reveal the lack of potable water leads to frustration from Indigenous people. Hence, they tend to use tainted water for daily chores because of the lack of a better option.

Maracle said water is needed for hygiene and to reduce the spread of the virus.

“We tend to have larger families and I don’t know if people are careful about cleaning stuff,” she said.

“There’s no running water to wash our masks. They are expensive to purchase and people are generally poorer.”

Also, houses on reserves sometimes require repairs to make them habitable and safe especially during the pandemic.

A census by Statistics Canada released on Oct. 25, 2017, stated one in five Aboriginal people reported on the 2016 census of the population, live in a dwelling that is in the need of major repairs.

Major repairs included dwellings with defective plumbing or electrical wiring, structural repairs to walls, floors, or ceilings, it stated.

It stated according to the National Occupancy Standard, 18.3 per cent of the Aboriginal population lived in housing not considered to be suitable for the number of people who stayed there.

Suitability referred to if the dwelling has enough bedrooms for the composition and size of the household, it stated.

Maracle said to fix this problem, some Indigenous people restore their houses themselves.

“We have lots of talents. My father was a carpenter, and my stepfather was a boat builder. We know how to do things,” she said. “I am a builder myself.”

Over in urban cities, Indigenous people experience different housing issues during the pandemic like the lack of affordable housing.

Although the issue of lack of running water may not apply to Indigenous people in urban communities, there exists a lack of stable and affordable housing.

Studies have highlighted the importance of housing in urban cities and its link to homelessness.

Research revealed almost 900,000 Indigenous people lived in urban areas in 2016 with the largest population in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto.

Studies reveal that several of them have lived in these cities for several years while others moved for studies, better housing, fleeing domestic violence, or for employment.

However, scholars have shown that Indigenous people in these communities, experience unemployment and lower wages which are some of the prerequisites to obtaining adequate housing.

Judy Hughes, senior director of Business and Economic Development at Native’s Women Association of Canada, during a speech at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, said there is a link between lack of finances and homelessness of Indigenous people in urban areas. 

“While poverty leads to homelessness, homelessness leads to poverty. It’s difficult to get a job when employers have no place to contact you,” Hughes said.

She said low or no wages lead to difficulties in finding rental accommodation.

“The burden of putting together first and last month’s rent is just that …  a burden,” Hughes said.

Native Canadian Centre of Toronto serves over 2,000 clients yearly with a wide-range of programmes like Okichitaw Martial Arts Program. Photo Credit – Tina Nalova Ikome-Likambi

Alternatively, the pandemic has impacted Indigenous people living in urban areas socio-economically as reported by Statistics Canada.

The report, published on May 26, 2020, stated 24 per cent of Indigenous people living in urban areas in provinces were in poverty compared to 13 per cent of the non-Indigenous population in these areas.

Poverty and financial constraints also affected food security in these households, it stated.

This report stated one in three Indigenous people in urban areas do not have access to an acceptable amount of quality and healthy food since the pandemic began.

Women were more likely to experience this, with 41 per cent of Indigenous women aged 18 and older living in a food-insecure household compared with 34 per cent of Indigenous men, it stated.

Also, 44 per cent of Indigenous women reported they were unable to cover an unexpected expense of $500 compared to 33 per cent of Indigenous men.

Indigenous people on-reserves and in urban areas have dealt with housing issues and also face these challenges during the global pandemic because of socio-economic challenges and built-in equalities.

One of such challenges is the history of healthcare in Indigenous communities and on Indigenous people.

Several studies have revealed there exists a barrier to healthcare in Indigenous communities in Canada.

Research shows that years of discrimination and racism have created negative experiences for Indigenous people and poorer health as a whole.

Also, there exist several studies that show the vulnerability of Indigenous communities to health crises like the ongoing global pandemic.

A 2011 study, Statistics Canada, revealed life expectancy in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit household populations were significantly lower than for the non-Indigenous population.

The probability of living to age 75 was lower for First Nations people, Métis and Inuit compared to other non-Indigenous population, it stated.

Several studies have reported on the life expectancy and health of Indigenous people.

Common topics researched by scholars show the lack of proper access to health care, suicide, and overall poor health from diseases like diabetes, cancer, and tuberculosis.

Also, other studies show stereotyping and racism equally contribute to Indigenous people not receiving adequate health care.

Historical data revealed the outbreak of epidemics like smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza, and measles upon contact with Europeans.

These act as the premise for vaccine hesitancy in some Indigenous people as research has revealed a vulnerability and inadequate trust of the healthcare system.

Vaccine hesitancy occurs when someone is unsure about the benefits of receiving a vaccine and so decides not to take it.

Several researchers have documented cases of medical experimentation on Indigenous Peoples in hospitals and residential schools.

These cases play a role in the issue of vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous people.

Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendships Centres are community hubs where Indigenous people living in towns, cities, and urban centres can access culturally based and culturally appropriate programs and services every day. Photo Credit – Tina Nalova Ikome-Likambi

Sarah Funnell, an associate medical officer of health with Ottawa Public Health, addressed this issue at the National Collaborating Centre of Infectious Disease on January 12.

Funnell, in a webinar presentation, stated several ways to curb vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous people.

It listed the creation of convenience by removing barriers of access to the vaccine, addressing dangers of COVID-19, and addressing fears of Indigenous people.

These align with Indigenous leaders like Matthew Coon Come, leader of the Grand Council of the Crees for 20 years, who believed Indigenous people should be asked about their thoughts on vaccinations before they are administered. 

Although some reports have stated the link between the history of Indigenous people in Canada and vaccine hesitancy, some experts revealed no such link exists.

Veldon Coburn, an assistant professor of Canadian and Aboriginal stories at the University of Ottawa, is one of such experts who sees no link.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Coburn said there was no evidence of a link between vaccine hesitancy and the intergenerational trauma of Indigenous people.

“The historic events that were bad and unethical did not have the same effect that is being claimed and maybe it is just naïve good intentions, but it does not stand up,” he said.

Coburn also said newborns in Indigenous communities get vaccinated routinely.

“We get needles all the time,” he said. “It is not a traumatic experience.”

Other reports also suggest challenges for Indigenous people to receive vaccines in urban cities like Toronto.

However, to curb this, several Indigenous health agencies are working with Indigenous healthcare providers to do testing and contact tracing to fight vaccine hesitancy.

Nonetheless, reports revealed a decrease in COVID-19 cases in First Nations communities because of high vaccination.

Dr. Tom Wong, the top doctor at Indigenous Services Canada provided details on this in an interview with the Canadian Press.

Wong said the number of active COVID-19 cases in First Nations communities has declined by 80 per cent since mid-January because of vaccines.

He said the number of active cases dropped to 860 on March 30 from a peak of 4,875 in mid-January.

Indigenous Services Canada stated back in a March 21 press release, a total of 246,675 COVID-19 doses had been administered by the end of March in 612 First Nation, Inuit, and territorial communities.

Over 50 per cent of adults living on First Nations Reserve, in Inuit Nunangat and the Territories had received at least one dose, at a rate over four times that of the overall Canadian adult population, it stated.

Based on the 2017 census, it stated, over 70 per cent of the adult population had been vaccinated in the Territories.

As such, the Canadian government has implemented several ways to support Indigenous communities during the ongoing pandemic.

In a press release dated January 31, it announced $1.2 billion in investments made through the Fall Economic Statement (FES) in support of the ongoing public health response to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.

This announcement was made by the Honourable Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, aimed at providing communities with the flexibility to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“First Nations, Inuit, and Métis have worked diligently to prevent, respond and control the spread of the virus in their communities. We acknowledge their strength and resilience, and the hard work they continue to put into leading their communities to safety,” Miller said.

“Through these investments, we will continue to support community-led solutions, and to ensure a strong and multi-faceted pandemic response,” he said.

It also stated the allocation of an additional $380 million for the Indigenous Community Support Fund.

Aimed at ensuring continued critical support for on-the-ground, it will implement community-led solutions to prevent, prepare and respond to COVID-19, it stated.

It stated that the Government of Canada had now invested over $1 billion in the Indigenous Community Support Fund.

Also, this announcement is included as part of $631 million over two years to assist communities, procuring PPE, hiring more staff, and adapting existing facilities, it stated.

It stated total funding of over $926 million had been allocated for public health emergency response in communities.

Over $186 million over two years was equally announced to support needs and gaps in long-term care facilities and the vulnerability of elders to assist with home care in Indigenous communities to protect these populations from COVID-19, it stated.

Indigenous communities have been able to navigate years of systematic inequalities like poor housing, racism, inadequate healthcare, poor sanitation, water contamination, unemployment, low wages, vaccine hesitancy, and discrimination to protect their communities and loved ones.

These communities have been able to reduce COVID-19 cases, protect their communities and increase vaccine administration contrary to challenges faced before and during the global pandemic.

The coronavirus magnified issues faced by Indigenous people and their communities in Canada. It also revealed how these communities manoeuvre and stay safe through a deadly global pandemic.


— Lee Maracle, ABS Instructor, Centre or Indigenous Studies

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