Covid-19, Pandemics and Indigenous Peoples in Canada, by Angela Mashford-Pringle

The rapid spread of Covid-19 globally has provided the world a glimpse of the inequities faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.

“I just wanted to highlight our traditional ways and Clan mothers for their ability to keep our path to our traditional foods and medicine practices safe and alive here in our Nations” – Indigenous participant.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 globally has provided the world a glimpse of the inequities faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. From the initial communications by governments to the current lifting of restrictions, the communications, resources (human, financial, and material), and funding has affected every First Nation, Métis and Inuit community and organization across Canada.

Cover art, Supplementary Report for the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada
February 2021. Angela Mashford-Pringle; Christine Skura; Sterling Stutz; Thilaxcy Yohathasan Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto

However, prior to Covid-19, there were other pandemics that powerfully influenced Indigenous peoples. They often experience colonization-derived social and economic inequalities – including food insecurity, lack of clean water, lack of adequate and affordable housing, access to culturally safe healthcare, and more.[1] These circumstances leave many Indigenous communities and organizations disproportionately unprepared for global pandemics like Covid-19 or emergencies caused by climate change.

In Canada, there are more than 1.67 million First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples or 4.9% of the Canadian population.[2] Across the country, they live in communities both rural and urban, some with Indigenous majorities.

In 2003, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a novel coronavirus that came to Canada with travellers from Hong Kong.[3] SARS primarily affected Toronto, with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care alerting health care providers about the new virus.[4] SARS was declared an emergency and thousands of people in the Toronto area were quarantined for a ten-day period in their homes in order to slow the spread. This crisis gave rise to pandemic planning at provincial and federal levels.[5]

“Indigenous peoples of the Americas in the USA (2010 census) and Canada (2016 census)” by Aviation Freak (CC BY-SA 3.0).

There is no evidence that local Indigenous communities or organizations were a part of the communications for this emergency. However, another pandemic did entail some limited communication and engagement with Indigenous peoples, organizations, and communities in 2009. The first case of H1N1 (also known as the swine flu) occurred in April 2009. “While Aboriginal peoples constitute only 3.8% of the Canadian population, from April 2009 to April 2010, they accounted for 7.4-10% of hospitalizations due to H1N1 in 2009, 7.8-10.4% of ICU admissions and 7.1-10.4% of deaths,” according to one estimate.[6] 

With Covid-19, there have been 97,707 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in First Nations communities (population size = 977, 509) with many entailing the Omicron variant.[7] Given that Métis and Inuit communities, and urban and off-reserve Indigenous peoples, are not usually counted in such estimates, this likely means that the  number of Indigenous people affected by Covid-19 has been much higher.

Covid-19 is clearly affecting Indigenous peoples regardless of where they live, but there are definitely differences between those who live in Indigenous communities compared to those who live in urban centres.

In early September 2020, my research team and I held virtual Indigenous community sessions to hear what the barriers, challenges, and strengths during Covid-19 were.[8] Indigenous peoples and communities provided a lot of insights into what was happening during the beginning of Covid-19.

Major themes included sovereignty, kinship, mental health, community leadership and preparedness, mistrust, healthcare access, funding, and structural inequalities. The two most important themes were land and ceremony.

Many Indigenous peoples and communities stressed that they did not get a chance to communicate with governments about lockdowns or their removal. Can you imagine being in lockdown when the provincial government suddenly relaxed its provisions without consulting you or your community –   whereupon vacationers felt free to stride down your street without physical distancing? Or the Prime Minister having discussions with the President of the United States and closing borders when your community straddles that border – without prior consultation?  What does that mean for you or your community? These were some of the key questions that came up in our first virtual session.

Some First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, with limited access to healthcare, experienced the arrival of non-Indigenous people showing up by car or boat, even given widespread concerns that such communities were at particular risk.

With these examples in mind, we asked more specific questions during our second session so that we could understand what did work for the communities. We heard stories about how there were Facebook challenges to keep boredom away, and flags or signs posted on people’s houses so that the community members who patrolled during the lockdowns would know what you needed and bring it to you. Some communities shared whatever resources (food, blankets, games, videos) they had to help each other through this new time. Indigenous teenagers were posting on TikTok and teaching their families how to use social media like Facebook Livestreams.

In that first year or so of Covid-19, there were some incredible moments during lockdowns of community-building and reconnecting with the land. We have not gone back to ask Indigenous peoples or communities if this continued, but I have seen ceremonies and teachings online for the past two years, which means that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and communities were creative in the ways that they assisted, supported, and uplifted each other in a time of uncertainty and fear.

As everyone adjusted to new communications from the federal and provincial governments, sometimes daily or weekly, Indigenous people were also trying to determine how to continue traditional ceremonies, harvesting, and work within the community around trauma. During the first year of Covid, there were Indigenous people who were already having issues with mental health and addictions that were made much worse because there were fewer places to receive help or the necessary care.[9]

Such trauma had historically been linked to the Canadian state’s now-renounced policy of residential schools. Residential schools were mandatory, highly repressive, and often did not allow children and youth to return home frequently. In May 2021, Kamloops Indian Residential School found 200 unmarked graves on the property.[10] Then, in June 2021, it was announced that a mass grave for 751 children at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan had also been found.[11]

Many Indigenous peoples were fully aware of the unmarked graves near residential schools. Still, the news came as Canada was coming out of a series of lockdowns and had tremendous impact on the mental health and well-being of Indigenous peoples. Some of the Indigenous people who were part of our virtual sessions commented on how Covid-19 lockdowns felt like another loss of self-determination and sovereignty and a return to the residential school era that sought to assimilate, experiment with, and undermine the freedoms of Indigenous children and youth.

“Kamloops Residential School Memorial, May 30th 2021,” by GoToVan (CC BY 2.0).

With the continued media coverage of the finding of the graves, Indigenous peoples took to social media to honour the children and youth who had lost their lives and had not returned home to their families or communities during century-long practice of mandatory residential school attendance. Traditional ceremonies for honouring people who have passed could not happen the way they always had. People couldn’t even hug each other as there was still a fear of getting Covid-19. This hardship added to the existing trauma that Indigenous peoples and communities were facing during the pandemic.

Prior to the first news report of the graves at residential schools, Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency over a months-long suicide crisis, culminating with a seven-year-old child attempting to take their life.[12] This is part of the cycle of trauma that Indigenous people have continued to face for more than a century, with increasing substance and alcohol abuse, self-harm, suicide, and other harmful methods of dealing with the trauma and oppression. Failing infrastructure (lack of clean or usable water, mould in homes, inadequate broadband internet to have health consultations, etc.) is connected with inferior healthcare and psychological problems.

The federal government is responsible for the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples across Canada, and yet, even when a First Nation or Inuit community declares an emergency, the response has been slow (at best), and often under-resourced (both socially and financially). This is also the case with Covid-19. It is not surprising that Indigenous peoples continue to fight through social media platforms and talk with reporters and news media in hopes of rousing sympathy from Canadians in order to change a situation that has become dire in some communities.

Historical trauma has led to mistrust and distrust of governments and all institutions like healthcare, education, child welfare, mental health, and justice. Before Covid-19, many problems made Indigenous people vulnerable – lack of clean and usable water, inadequate housing, trauma from government policies and legislation like the Indian Act, the residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop (entailing forced adoptions into white families of Indigenous children) – all of which underscored the lack of Indigenous self-determination over daily life.

Covid-19 has shone a light on these issues. It also oftentimes made them worse for many Indigenous peoples and communities. The problems that existed before Covid-19 were clearly long-term and entrenched in the very fabric of Canadian society. We have all had to make changes to the way we live, work, and play during Covid-19, but if the changes don’t give Indigenous peoples a voice, then have we really changed the systems that oppress and marginalize us?

We are at a crossroads to change for the planet, humans, and all in creation. We can change how and what we purchase; we can make sweeping and significant changes to policies and legislation; we can (re)learn to be kind and considerate human beings who care not only about today and what that means to us on a very personal level, but also about the future and how we can be in balance with all that this world offers from our natural world to the digital frontier.

Covid-19 has taught us that there are multiple ways of knowing that can improve the world.

[1] Angela Mashford-Pringle, Christine Skura, Sterling Stutz, and Thilaxcy Yohathasan, What we heard: Indigenous Peoples and COVID-19, Supplementary Report for the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada (Ottawa: Chief Public Health Officer of Canada’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, February 2021). Link to source.

[2] Indigenous Services Canada, Annual Report to Parliament 2020, Link to source.

[3] Health Canada, Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada. (ISBN 0-662-34984-9). Ottawa: Health Canada, 2003.

[4] Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care – Ontario. Diseases: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), 8 August 2018. Link to source.

[5] Public Health Agency of Canada. Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness: Planning Guidance for the Health Sector (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2006). Link to source; On-Reserve First Nations communities: Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness: Planning Guidance for the Health Sector Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2006. Link to source.

[6] Andrea K. Boggild, Lilian Yuan, Donald E. Low, and Allison McGeer, “The impact of Influenza on the Canadian First Nations,” Canadian Journal of Public Health 102, 5 (September-October 2011), 345, link to source.

[7] Government of Canada. “Confirmed cases of COVID-19.” Retrieved from: link to source.

[8] Mashford-Pringle et al., What we heard.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Phil Heidenreich, “‘The story was hidden’: How residential school graves shocked and shaped Canada in 2021,” Global News, 31 December 2021, Link to source.

[11] Bryan Eneas,  “Sask. First Nation announces discovery of 751 unmarked graves near former residential school,” CBC News, 24 June 2021, Link to source.

[12] Kelly Geraldine Malone, “Manitoba First Nation declares state of emergency to deal with ‘suicide crisis’,” Globe and Mail, 18 May 2021, Link to source.