Bulk of COVID-19 response funding for Indigenous communities ready to go, says minister

By | March 20, 2020

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said tonight the hundreds of millions of dollars promised to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities for their COVID-19 response will flow soon after Parliament passes enabling legislation — something that’s expected to happen next week.

An Indigenous Services document sent to First Nations Friday said the money in a $305 million fund created for Indigenous communities will be available in April, but Miller told CBC News he wants the money out the door as soon as federal legislation on the multi-billion-dollar COVID-19 aid package receives royal assent.

“There will be funds flowed and allocated to First Nations communities on-reserve, Inuit and Métis in the most expeditious fashion possible,” Miller said.

“It is very much the beginning to address essential needs that have been communicated to us in no uncertain terms by communities, as they go out of pocket or they appropriate resources that were intended to be spent elsewhere.”

The details of how the $305 million fund will be divided still have to be worked out, but the formula will be based on several factors, including population, remoteness and community wellness, said Miller.

“It is not a capped amount,” he said.

A $100 million envelope — announced last week — is already available to Indigenous communities to use for updating or drawing up pandemic plans, getting out public health messages and dealing with short-term needs.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, pictured with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, doesn’t want the federal government’s other Indigenous priorities to be forgotten. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The additional promised funds can be used for COVID-19 related expenses ranging from purchasing supplies, such as hand sanitizers and masks, to covering travel expenses and repurposing community buildings for medical care, isolation sites and storage space.

“We know from our experience with previous epidemics that not only are Indigenous communities disproportionately negatively affected, but it varies from region to region and it also varies depending on which sort of wave hits at what time,” Miller said.

“That is something we need to be aware of and allocate resources to.”

Unclear how pandemic response will affect other priorities

Miller said resources will have to be reassessed on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, and his department is moving “aggressively” to get COVID-19 testing kits into the hands of health care workers in Indigenous communities. 

Miller also said he doesn’t know how COVID-19 will affect his department’s other priorities, such as making sure there is clean drinking water in all First Nations communities.

In his mandate letter, Miller was instructed to lift all long-term boil water advisories on reserves by March 2021.

Earlier this month, Miller said his department was on track to meet the target. Now, that timeline is no longer clear.

“It is difficult to predict the impact that this epidemic will have on communities,” Miller said. “It would be careless for me to speculate.”

A lack of clean drinking water is one of the factors that makes Indigenous communities disproportionately vulnerable to infectious disease outbreaks. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he understands the pandemic has to be the immediate focus. But he doesn’t want other priorities — such as ending the long-term boil water advisories — to be forgotten.

“When things slow down, we have to get these very important priorities addressed as well,” Bellegarde said. 

Vice-President of the Métis National Council David Chartrand raised concerns this week about Miller’s messaging on COVID-19 funding because he appeared to address the needs of First Nations communities over other Indigenous groups.

But Miller said the Métis will not be left behind.

“They are absolutely included in this,” Miller said. “This is a virus that doesn’t discriminate.”

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