As the pandemic and the response to it continues to present challenges to Canadians, the picture that emerges of the reality for off-reserve Indigenous peoples is grim.
Off-reserve Indigenous people account for approximately half the Indigenous population. They live in urban centres and they aren’t seeing the support on-reserve Indigenous people or non-Indigenous Canadians are seeing, according to leaders who spoke to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health on Tuesday.
Friendship Centres are overburdened. These centres provide basic and culturally meaningful services to off-reserve Indigenous people. Going to work every day to keep people alive is the norm for friendship-centre staff across the country, said Christopher Sheppard-Buote, president of the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC).
The federal government created a $305-million pandemic-related Indigenous Community Support Fund, and $15 million was set aside for urban organizations — funds for which the association could apply.
When the Sun spoke with the Brandon Friendship Centre almost two weeks ago, president Lorne Mosionier said it was waiting on the national association to learn whether it would receive necessary COVID-related funding to continue its activities of helping people in need, especially with food.
"The funds are yet to be passed on," said Haley Lewis, the national association’s communications officer.
"We were only told late Monday that the proposal the NAFC wrote was successful, to a certain extent. We are waiting for funds to be passed to us, to be able to pass them along to friendship centres."
The national association learned on Monday it would receive $3.75 million for the 107 friendship centres in Canada.
"Really fighting to keep people alive is actually a normal occurrence at our organizations all the time," said Sheppard-Buote.
"Co-ordinating and keeping people alive is not strange territory for us. … It takes an incredible amount of work and energy and response to make sure that they have the best health outcomes every single day."
He said there is just not enough funding, and he that the fact friendship centres had to apply to an underfunded and competitive envelope of money was disrespectful.
Meanwhile, to help out, the Manitoba Metis Federation has pledged to help friendship centres across the province. The federation has provided financial support to nine friendship centres in Manitoba, with more than $500,000 committed to help ensure their programming will continue. It has also provided financial support to food banks across Manitoba, such as the Selkirk Food Bank, to ensure organizations can continue to provide food to individuals who need some extra support during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement provided to The Brandon Sun.
The province did not reply by deadline on whether it was helping fill some of these gaps.
Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels repeated these same sentiments to the standing committee.
"Chiefs are receiving calls every day asking for help," Daniels said about off-reserve members.
Chief Ken Chalmers of Birdtail Sioux First Nation, speaking to the Sun March 31, said he was receiving calls from off-reserve members located all over Canada. But the funding Birdtail receives is for on-reserve members. Those elsewhere can access other pandemic-related federal funding, he said. And for many, that’s through organizations such as friendship centres.
But Daniels went further. He said there’s a monumental financial shortfall that will cause hardship. He said it has been reported an unprecedented $113 billion has been allocated to help Canadians during the pandemic.
"Only $621 million is earmarked for Indigenous communities. The 2016 Canadian Census reported that Indigenous peoples accounted for 4.9 per cent of the national population. Yet indigenous people are receiving just over half of one per cent of the relief funds allocated by Ottawa," Daniels said.
He added that even if some Indigenous people can access other funding, that doesn’t come close to closing the gap.
"This is clearly disproportionate and First Nations are still left managing poverty."
Daniels called for systemic inequalities to be dealt with once and for all. Sheppard-Buote stated the same, saying public policy does not reflect the reality of Indigenous people.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.