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Indigenous communities at increased risk during the coronavirus pandemic

 



After implementing strict measures to protect themselves from COVID-19 and thereby asserting their sovereignty over their territories, First Nations have been largely spared from the feared coronavirus outbreak. However, the threat posed by the possibility of a second wave remains very real.


Historical and contemporary forms of colonialism predispose First Nations to increased risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.


As researchers and experts in human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, we argue that the landmark 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in the case between the federal government and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations sets the legal standard for Canada in the provision and funding of services to address COVID-19. Canada’s funding measures to date to address the risk of an outbreak do not meet this standard.


From White Plague to COVID-19

On Nov. 15, 1907, a headline in the Ottawa Evening Citizen stated, “Schools Aid White Plague: Surprising Death Rolls Among Indians Revealed. Absolute Inattention To Bare Necessities of Health.”


After implementing strict measures to protect themselves from COVID-19 and thereby asserting their sovereignty over their territories, First Nations have been largely spared from the feared coronavirus outbreak. However, the threat posed by the possibility of a second wave remains very real.


Historical and contemporary forms of colonialism predispose First Nations to increased risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.


As researchers and experts in human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, we argue that the landmark 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in the case between the federal government and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations sets the legal standard for Canada in the provision and funding of services to address COVID-19. Canada’s funding measures to date to address the risk of an outbreak do not meet this standard.


From White Plague to COVID-19

On Nov. 15, 1907, a headline in the Ottawa Evening Citizen stated, “Schools Aid White Plague: Surprising Death Rolls Among Indians Revealed. Absolute Inattention To Bare Necessities of Health.”


For decades, Canada has been aware of the inequities in funding for First Nations services and programs, but has not acted. According to evidence presented before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2005, the federal government estimated that it provided at least 22 per cent less funding to First Nations for children’s services compared to funding for other children. Instead, the federal government has encouraged First Nations to be patient as it makes negligible changes to inequitable government services for First Nations. Indeed, the tribunal had to issue nine orders after its landmark 2016 decision in order to hold Canada to its legal obligations to First Nations children.


In the case of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations against the Government of Canada, the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that it is illegal for Canada to put financial considerations ahead of the best interests of First Nations children. The decision echoes what First Nations people have long asserted: that discrimination as a tax policy is a manifestation of racism and colonialism rooted in Canadian society.


If there is one thing we have learned from Canada’s response to the pandemic crisis, it is that various levels of government can move quickly to deliver billions of dollars in social programs and economic support when they are deemed priorities. If substantive equality is not seen as an immediate policy objective in government programs and services, Canada’s colonialist policies will once again have predictable and fatal consequences for First Nations people.

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