Dear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister Marc Miller,
Indigenous Peoples continue to live with the impact of colonization and centuries of attacks on sovereignty and human rights violations, preventing control over healthcare, and appropriate community safety measures. Chronic underfunding of essential services, including safe water, healthcare services, and housing will devastate the communities’ ability to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Indigenous people also experience a higher rate of chronic disease and pre-existing medical conditions. All this increases the risk of severe COVID-19 cases; as an example, during the H1N1 crisis, Indigenous people were 6.5 times more likely to be admitted to the ICU than non-Indigenous people.
Now more than ever, governments need to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in their emergency response plans, without repeating the oppression and human rights violations of previous governments. Indigenous communities know what they need in order to keep their own people safe and healthy, this must be respected. Communities hold the knowledge of their resources and deficits. One general, blanket approach will not meet the needs of all communities; urgent intervention that respects the specific needs of the communities is needed NOW to avert catastrophic consequences.
Furthermore, the federal government’s pledge of $315 million in pandemic assistance for all Indigenous communities is less than one-per cent of the $82 billion in funding assistance, but Indigenous people represent 5% of the population of Canada. This is discrepancy is simply unacceptable. The Canadian government has already been found to discriminate against Indigenous Peoples by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal: the inadequacies that already exist mean that all governments have legal obligations to correct the disparity that has been created over the centuries.
It is also important to remember that the federal government will have to justify any distinction in the type and level of services it provides to status Indians, non-status Indians and Métis and can no longer argue that it has no jurisdictional obligation. If Canada has learned anything from Jordan’s principle, it is clear that appropriate responses to this pandemic must be person-first and need-based to avoid tragedy.
This pandemic is all about human rights. The virus attacks the rights to health and to life. The economic crisis threatens the rights to livelihood, housing, and food. The shutdowns undermine rights to education, employment, and freedom of movement. Crucially, the disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities that face entrenched marginalization goes to the core of essential human-rights obligations.
Governments have shown us in the last few weeks how quickly they can respond to an initial pandemic crisis, and to evolving and emerging developments in this new reality we face. Governments have proved to be flexible and compassionate, supporting people and our social institutions. We should see the same rapid and effective government response to support Indigenous communities.