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A possible one-time $20 pandemic-related infusion into her tight budget is what Birdtail Sioux First Nation member Laureen Bunn might receive if she applies for her share of a $10,270 transfer through her band office.
Bunn is a member who lives off her reserve, which is located an hour and a half northwest of Brandon. She lives in Brandon because medical appointments are easier to access. An infection after a hip replacement surgery landed her in a wheelchair. Her hip is gone now and Bunn is on a disability pension.
The transfer to Birdtail is from the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO), which received $775,165 in July from money the federal government announced in May. Seventeen Manitoba organizations together received $8.4 million of $90 million nationally for Indigenous organizations and communities.
That money was specifically for First Nation people living off-reserve and Indigenous people in urban areas, to support essential services and to prevent and respond to potential COVID-19 outbreaks.
For the 501 off-reserve Birdtail members, that means $20 per person.
The SCO has 34 member nations and will be administering the shares for Waywayseecappo First Nation and two others. Off-reserve members for all other First Nations need to approach their bands directly. The SCO represents approximately 80,461 First Nations people. In Canada, it is estimated roughly half of members live off-reserve.
Bunn is frustrated because she has never received any financial help from Birdtail since the pandemic hit in March. She is not the only one. Meanwhile, fellow members on-reserve receive additional funds and other help.
"The band just didn’t help us out at all," she said, adding there are many members who live in Brandon.
"We asked before, when the pandemic started. They were handing out stuff to on-reserve members, like food and money. We didn’t get anything."
Bunn said she’s responsible to pay for her rent, hydro, water, Handi-Transit — everything — with her disability cheque. There isn’t much left after those expenditures, and the $20 won’t even get her a box of masks at Walmart.
Chief Ken Chalmers is equally frustrated. As early as March 31, Chalmers told The Brandon Sun that he was receiving countless calls from off-reserve members located all over Canada. He said it’s the federal government, specifically Indigenous Services Canada, that’s causing chaos for chiefs and councils across Canada.
"If they’re going to be helping us, state what the money is for," he said, referring to million-dollar announcements that don’t specify when money is to be used for on-reserve members only.
Chalmers described a system that is delivering $150 a month per each First Nation house on-reserve due to COVID-19, regardless of the number of people living in the house. Birdtail is using some of its own resources to top that up, mostly with food subsidies at its own store.
Should Chalmers spend any money toward helping off-reserve members, the federal government will claw it back.
"In the agreements we sign, this is for on-reserve, to support the children and the poor on-reserve," he said. "It makes chief and council look like crap. It’s designed that way."
He said every chief is getting bombarded, and the sad part is he has no answers. Chalmers credits the SCO for handing out what funds it can find, but he said Indigenous Services should look at total membership numbers and disperse funds accordingly. Then he could provide all members with a COVID-19 supplement.
"I can’t sustain $400 to $500 a month for 500 people," he said. "I get no household money for that person who lives in Brandon or Winnipeg. At the end of this thing, we don’t want to be bankrupt. I’m not going to drive the band into bankruptcy."
Chalmers cannot exactly explain why registered members are treated differently. When it comes to a core treaty negotiation currently in progress with the government, including a possible financial settlement, the entire membership is included.
He said chiefs are lobbying for off-reserve members, but get tortured on Facebook, accused of stealing the money and pocketing it.
"Every penny we get here is in our audit. And during COVID, here, we spent double what we got," Chalmers said, adding most of that was for food, and the check stop barring visitors from the community to keep it safe.
Meanwhile, the SCO stated in an email that it is pleased to have received the funds it did, but it’s not enough.
"Our chiefs have done an incredible job to address this crisis, but the economic environment is challenging and much more is needed to help communities deal with the hardships that COVID-19 has brought to their communities and to their off-reserve members," stated the organization.
In August, the federal government announced another $305 million in funding for the Indigenous Community Support Fund, but it remains unclear where specifically that money will land.
» 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.
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