OTTAWA — The federal government has announced the details of $650 million in additional funding to help Indigenous communities cope with the pandemic, after months of First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders saying the previous amount was inadequate.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says $285 million of this will support rapid public health responses in Indigenous communities when faced with an outbreak of COVID-19.
“These funds will go toward more nurses, will help procure specialized supplies and will support work with First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities on continued community-driven responses,” Trudeau said Friday outside his Rideau Cottage residence.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller called this amount “new funding” during the official announcement, but later acknowledged millions from this fund has already been spent.
He said this was because his department “didn’t wait to act to get confirmation that we had these resources” before it procured the needed supplies for Indigenous communities.
A total of $44 million has gone to pandemic-related infrastructure in Indigenous communities that asked for help, as well as some that did not. Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, said the federal government helped some communities with medical tents without being asked because they knew it was needed.
Some of the newly announced funding has gone to securing emergency contracts with nurses and paramedics in preparation for a sudden outbreak. It has also been spent on personal protective equipment for essential community workers in First Nations who do not qualify to receive it from other stockpiles because they are not health workers.
Miller said that while the first wave of COVID-19 appears to be receding, Indigenous communities continue to be among the populations most vulnerable due to long-standing health and social disparities in their communities.
“We must remain vigilant. The threat of a second wave is very real,” he said.
The federal government had previously committed $305 million to help First Nations reserves, and Inuit and Metis communities, with supplies, medical care and facilities to allow for physical distancing.
Since that initial funding was announced in March, Indigenous leaders from across Canada have said it would not be enough to prevent the most vulnerable people from falling through the cracks.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations said the additional monies show the Trudeau government is listening to the evolving needs of Indigenous peoples through the pandemic.
“Today’s announcement is going to give First Nations the ability to continue the fight against COVID-19,” Bellegarde said.
Another portion of the $650 million announced Friday will go to individuals and families who rely on the on-reserve income assistance program, so they don’t have to choose between food and rent during the crisis.
The program will see a $270 million increase overall, with $139 million of this funding going toward direct COVID-19 response, and the remainder going toward sustaining base funding for this program to ensure continuity for its clients through the crisis.
“Our collective goal is to make sure individuals and families can go through this pandemic with the most support that they can get — that they can face this new reality with as little stress and anxiety as possible when it comes to their income and that they can, first and foremost, stay safe and healthy,” Miller said.
Since the pandemic began, groups and shelters that work with Indigenous women have reported a sharp rise in domestic violence as COVID-19 restrictions keep families in their homes.
To address these concerns, Miller announced Ottawa will spend $44.8 million over five years to build 10 shelters in First Nations communities and two in the territories to help women and children fleeing violence.
The government will also provide $40.8 million to support operational costs for these new shelters over the first five years, and $10.2 million annually after that.
Ottawa is committing a further $1 million a year for engagement with Metis leaders and service providers to provide shelter to women fleeing violence and assist in community-led violence prevention projects.
“No one should have to stay in a place where they are unsafe, no one should be forced to choose between violence or homelessness,” Trudeau said.
“These new shelters will offer a path forward when people need it most.”
Rebecca Kudloo, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, which has been pushing for a federal commitment of $20 million for five emergency shelters and transitional housing units in the Inuit North, says she was disappointed to hear only two shelters will be built in all of the territories.
“There’s a need if we’re going to keep our women safe,” she said.
“We’re always on the losing end.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press