First Nations welcome $305 million COVID-19 fund, wait for details

The Trudeau government announced today it’s spending $305 million to help Indigenous communities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but details of how the funds will be distributed and spent will depend on events in the coming days, weeks and months.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau told a press conference that the funds will be in place to respond to any situation faced by Indigenous communities as the pandemic unfolds across the country.

“We need to recognize that we don’t know all the situations so far,” said Morneau. 

“That’s what we’re doing in the case of Indigenous peoples and we’re looking forward to working together very rapidly to figure out the details.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the $305 million Indigenous community support fund on Wednesday morning as part of a broader $82 billion aid package to help Canadians and businesses deal with the fallout from COVID-19 — which has shut down businesses and borders around the world.

“These are some of the things our government is doing to make sure that no matter where you live, what you do or who you are, you will get the support you need during this time,” said Trudeau. 

Trudeau announced last week that Indigenous communities could draw from a $100 million envelope that was part of a $1 billion investment to boost public health measures.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says funds set aside for Indigenous communities will be used to respond to events as they unfold. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde tweeted praise for Trudeau’s announcement. 

“Encouraging to hear these measures announced by the prime minister to help First Nations during the #COVID19 crisis,” Bellegarde wrote.

Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians Grand Chief Joel Abram said he expects the federal Indigenous Services department will reveal more about how the money will be distributed and spent over the coming days.  

“We know this is a first-time kind of thing for dealing with this,” said Abram, whose organization represents seven First Nations in Ontario.

“I think everybody is trying to be as patient as we can, but it is an urgent situation and we need to know where the money is going.”

Abram said his organization has been dealing with Ontario and Ottawa to prepare for the pandemic. He said there needs to be better communication between the two levels of government.

“I think it’s best if we start to get something coordinated,” he said. “Everything is fluid and there are a lot of moving parts.”

Abram said he’d like to see both levels of government prepare First Nations to conduct on-reserve testing because many people on reserves can’t easily get to urban centres — and medical transport drivers may be reluctant to maintain service on reserves if infection rates rise.

“You may have drivers who may be reluctant to expose themselves to the virus,” he said.

Calls for ‘clarity’

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, issued a statement demanding more clarity from Ottawa on how the funds will be used.

“Some of our nations can afford to get supplies and medicines to their people and await reimbursements from the federal government,” said FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron.

“But there are also many communities that don’t have this luxury and are continuing to wait for the funding necessary to get needed supplies and groceries to their most vulnerable … We need clarity on what our region is getting and when they will receive it.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario, sent a request outlining their COVID-19 needs to Indigenous Services over the weekend.

Northern and fly-in First Nations face elevated risks from a COVID-19 outbreak because of residential overcrowding and the prevalence of diabetes and other medical conditions, along with a pre-existing shortage of nursing staff.

Indigenous Services said in a media statement that the department would be expanding existing contracts for nursing agencies and increasing the number of available health personnel through the use of paramedics and other front-line responders in the event of an emergency caused by an outbreak.

“We will continue to take a broad approach to solicit additional health professionals that can be available to be deployed to communities that would be seeing a number of COVID-19 [cases], either probable or confirmed cases that would require that surge capacity support,” said the emailed statement from department spokesperson Rola Tfaili.

The statement said that the department would support First Nations needing critical help in reactivating their pandemic plans, and consider any proposals to deal with immediate needs involving “effective allocation of scarce public health and primary care” and aligning with “scientific evidence as determined by a medical officer of health.”

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