The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare, and underfunded social systems that Canada’s First Nations peoples have been dealing with for centuries. The 1.4 million Indigenous people in Canada experience higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians, meaning the pandemic is affecting Indigenous people in a way that is different from others.
As society shifts to beat the virus, Indigenous communities cannot be simply written off as vulnerable populations that are more harshly affected by society-wide problems. One cannot lose sight of the importance of continuing to strengthen Indigenous rights during this pandemic.
Taking Control When No One Else Will
According to the Ontario Human Rights Council, responding to the pandemic in a way that is consistent with human rights means “providing all healthcare services related to COVID-19, including testing, triaging, treatment and possible vaccination, without stigma or discrimination based on the grounds of Indigenous ancestry, race, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship status, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, social condition, etc.” 
Unfortunately, systematic discrimination has meant that the necessary preparations aren’t reaching most First Nations communities in need. They are already dealing with overcrowded healthcare facilities and Friendship Centres, straining their resources and thus their ability to handle the problem. To limit exposure to the novel coronavirus, many are taking one of the measures available to them: they are closing their land borders. Indigenous nations maintain rights that give them control over who enters their territories – while this measure has not been universally applied, it has given communities one way to prevent new cases from spreading within their communities.
Several First Nations communities have already taken very stringent measures. The Pimicikamak Cree Nation north of Winnipeg has closed its borders and has put in place measures to check every vehicle upon entry, turning away outsiders for the protection of those living on the reserve. The council of the Haida Nation has discouraged “all non-resident travel” to the Charlotte Islands, citing limited health resources.
The Federal government has said it would offer Indigenous communities aid by sending personal protective equipment and more nursing staff. But as MP Niki Ashton said, “saying ‘wash your hands thoroughly and self-isolate’ is completely disconnected from remote First Nations that don’t have access to running water, and the housing crisis means they can’t self-isolate.”
Helping Indigenous communities means strengthening their rights; this can be done by implementing the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Final Report issued as a result of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and implementing, in a focused way, the recognition of Indigenous rights into Canadian law needs to be a priority.
The Pandemic Threatens Focus On Important First Nations Issues
At the beginning of their tenure, the Federal Liberal government promised to build on steps toward improving the lives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in the first year of its new mandate. This includes ensuring safe drinking water in First Nations communities and improving access to culturally relevant health care and mental health services, both of which are essential for getting through the pandemic safely.
“The COVID pandemic has really hit a number of ministries quite hard, but that doesn’t prevent them from continuing their work in a number of super-important areas, of which this is one,” said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. Despite what is said, the pandemic still threatens to disrupt any progress and attention paid towards achieving reconciliation.
This is paradoxical because strengthening Indigenous rights will only help vulnerable communities get through this pandemic. It is important to lobby the provincial and Federal governments and ensure that Canadians do not forget about the steps still needed towards reconciliation. The pandemic only makes the disparities between communities more clear, and progress cannot be put on hold!