EDITORIALS  Support Indigenous Communities During COVID-19

As quarantine and self-isolation orders increase globally, the most recent wave of eco-facism has spread rapidly across social media and mainstream news outlets. False reports of dolphins returning to the empty canals in Venice, Italy, and viral tweets asserting that “we are the virus” expose a harmful sentiment – that the pandemic is only “the planet healing itself.” The harmful rhetoric behind these sentiments is three-fold – treating the lives lost by COVID-19 as disposable, discounting the disproportionate damage done to marginalized peoples and communities by the willful neglect of governments, and erasing the work that Indigenous land defenders have been doing for centuries to maintain and protect their land. 

These posts also camouflage the disproportionate effects of climate change on racialized people, and enforce racist beliefs that the planet can be saved at the expense of the lives of people of colour. Climate justice movements perpetuate eco-fascism and racism, and  actively exclude racialized people, especially Indigenous peoples. The Canadian government’s response to COVID-19 is no exception. 

Although various provincial and federal regulations have been implemented in order to slow the spread of the virus, including travel restrictions and border closures, as well as self-isolation and social distancing recommendations – these solutions are not feasible for everyone, namely many Indigenous communities living on reserves. It is not possible to wash your hands more frequently when clean drinking water is already a scarce resource. It is not possible to self-isolate when your community is experiencing a housing crisis. 

There is a lack of infrastructure on many reserves due to the Canadian government’s chronic disregard for Indigenous peoples’ rights. Currently, 61 reserves are under a long-term boil water advisory, meaning that their water has been nonpotable for a year or longer. In addition, reserves are facing a housing crisis caused by a lack of funding and support from the government, forcing some families to live together in smaller homes. Social distancing and self-isolation are not viable options under these conditions, putting these communities at greater risk.

During the H1N1 pandemic, the isolated Indigenous reserves of Wasagamack and God’s River First Nation requested funding and basic medical supplies, including hand sanitizer, medicine, and face masks, from the then-incumbent Conservative government. What they received were body bags. The Harper government failed Indigenous communities during the pandemic, and the Trudeau government is not proving to be much better, despite their many claims and commitments

During the question period in the House of Commons on March 9, Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Leah Gazan asked Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller if he was on the Cabinet Committee regarding the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Gazan called back to the government’s failings during H1N1, and the need for Indigenous peoples to be included in the government’s processes of addressing the pandemic and providing emergency aid. There are no Indigenous people on the committee, and at the time of Gazan’s question, the Indigenous Services Minister was only an alternate member. Since this interaction, after a teleconference with Indigenous leaders and Prime Minister Trudeau, Miller has joined the committee as a full member. However, there have been no official consultations with Indigenous leaders to create plans to provide adequate healthcare and resources to Indigenous communities and reserves. The government promises to “engage with First Nations and Inuit communities to support access to health services that are comparable to that of other Canadians,” but no direct or specific outcomes of this promise have been seen. 

As Canadian cases of COVID-19 increase, many Indigenous leaders and politicians are expressing their concerns that some reserves have not yet received hand sanitizer, gloves, or masks, greatly increasing the risk of the virus spreading within these smaller communities.

Some reserves are receiving only isolation tents, but in many cases these are not feasible or helpful, and are far from a universal solution. Additionally, according to federal officials, Inuit communities are not receiving tents.  For reserves in Northern Canada where tents are being provided, they are not habitable long-term, as they do not retain heat and cannot provide adequate shelter. Niki Ashton, NDP MP of Churchill-Keewatinook, a riding in Northern Manitoba, said of the tents, “You don’t put sick people in winter in a tent […] A tent in northern Manitoba’s climate for the next multiple months is basically the same as a body bag.”

The mobilization of the federal government to minimize the impact of COVID-19 is limited to helping select communities. $500 million of the government’s support for COVID-19 is going to provincial and territorial governments, but the major teleconference between Indigenous leaders and the Prime Minister on March 13 did not include Premiers. The $305 million in aid being promised to Indigenous communities has no clear allocation; the official COVID-19 committee has never mentioned it. Crucially we cannot let this new funding distract from the fact that in the initially proposed COVID-19 support budget, the Métis were not included.

In British Columbia, while members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and those living at checkpoints on the land are being told to self-isolate, the RCMP is escorting pipeline workers back onto the construction sites, despite having no legal authority to be there. As stated in a Facebook post on the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidimt’en Territory page, “Temporary workers and police from throughout the province come and go. Pipelines are stockpiled, while RCMP escort workers through Unist’ot’en, Gidimt’en and Lihkts’amisyu territory to clear the pipeline right of way.” In another post, they shared a photo of pipelines being stacked. These land protectors are being forced to choose between interacting with the police which puts them at risk of unlawful arrests and police brutality, as well as potentially being exposed to COVID-19 or not defending their land.

During COVID-19, while personal and community health concerns are important, the concerns of Indigenous communities are crucial and must receive equal attention from the government and the media. The government’s neglect cannot be ignored; they must be pressured to provide proper resources and assistance during a national health crisis. Call Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller and Minister of Indigenous Relations of Reconciliation Scott Fraser and demand that they implement clear communication with Indigenous leaders to meet the needs of their communities. It is crucial to call out eco-facism when we see it, and to support Indigenous land defenders by circulating information and assisting with online organization via social media, which is possible even under self-isolation.