The Southern Chiefs’ Organization is calling on Ottawa for more COVID-related funding for urban and off-reserve First Nations people.
The federal government created a $305-million pandemic-related Indigenous Community Support Fund in late March, and $15 million was set aside for urban organizations that provide services for Indigenous people living off reserves or in urban centres.
The organization said that for approximately two months now, chiefs from the 34 First Nations represented by the SCO, as well as the SCO itself, have been receiving requests for support for food, cleaning supplies, household goods and rent relief from urban and off-reserve members.
First Nations receive funding for on-reserve members only.
Those living off-reserve are not getting desperately needed assistance, according to Grand Chief Jerry Daniels. He also said a lack of federal government transparency is preventing chiefs from responding to their citizens with accurate information.
"First Nation people in southern Manitoba are struggling to find the resources and support they need to survive in this extraordinarily difficult COVID-19 environment," Daniels stated, adding that a lack of transparency on the part of the feds means chiefs don’t know where they can refer their off-reserve members for support.
Further, according to the SCO, less than a million dollars of the federal funding was allocated for Manitoba. Using 2016 Census data, the organization estimates that funding would provide less than $10 for each First Nation, Métis or Inuit person.
More than 450 organizations applied to the federal for the $15-million program — 92 from Manitoba alone, according to the organization.
While Indigenous Services Canada did not confirm information provided by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, Vanessa Adams, a senior communications adviser and press secretary for Indigenous Services Canada Minister Marc Miller, did provide comments to The Brandon Sun.
"We want to be clear — the funding allocated for regional, urban, and off-reserve Indigenous organizations is just a start. We know more support will be needed and we are actively working to identify and deliver the supports and to make sure no Indigenous community is left behind," Adams stated.
"We understand that Indigenous peoples living in urban centres face unique needs and challenges. That is why this initial funding is designed to allow for maximum flexibility to fund according to local priorities and needs. We have also streamlined the application and disbursement process to allow funds to flow directly to Indigenous communities and groups across the country."
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization said it believes nine proposals were approved in Manitoba more than a week ago.
"However, the federal government has not yet announced the names nor the organizations that will be funded, causing additional stress to an already untenable situation," Daniels said.
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization said the requests for support are coming from vulnerable members who have lost precarious employment or who are on provincial Employment and Income Assistance.
"This ongoing need is worsened by the fact that Manitoba is not providing any form of additional support for those on employment assistance. Many on provincial EIA rely on food banks and soup kitchens to supplement their food allowance so they can afford to pay their rent, and these organizations are now closing or have been forced to reduce their services," according to the organization.
Daniels said some children, elders and families are not getting their most basic needs met.
When asked if Manitoba is working with Indigenous leadership to fill any gaps not covered by the federal government, a spokesperson for the provincial department of Indigenous and Northern Relations stated: "There is regular and ongoing communication between the minister, Indigenous and Northern Relations officials and Indigenous leadership. Provincial officials have a number of collaboration tables on health planning and response that meet on a regular basis amid the COVID-19 crisis. There is a provincial table that meets twice a week with Inuit, Métis and First Nation representatives. Other forums to support a co-ordinated response include a table co-chaired by AMC (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) and Health Incident Command, as well as most regional health authorities meet weekly with the Indigenous leadership as joint pandemic planning and response occurs."
Ontario, meanwhile, has ponied up more than $37 million to support Indigenous communities, including $10 million from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services to support Indigenous communities and agencies in responding to the needs of vulnerable children, families and elders during the outbreak, as well as $7.4 million from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to help social service providers, charities and non-profits delivering critical housing services to Indigenous people living off-reserve.
» 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.