Métis Nation-Saskatchewan rolls out broad range of pandemic support

More support for Métis citizens facing health and financial hardship or in self-isolation because of COVID-19

Métis Nation Government of Saskatchewan Minister of Health Marg Friesen. Photo courtesy of MN-S

The Métis Nation Government of Saskatchewan (MN–S) is rolling out emergency COVID-19 support for Métis communities and citizens in need. 

“The COVID-19 situation within Saskatchewan, and nationwide, is evolving minute by minute and we are working to meet the changing needs of our citizens,” MN–S President Glen McCallum said.  

MN–S says it will ensure that travel costs for in-hospital COVID-19 treatment is covered. Métis communities in lockdown and households in mandatory isolation are being supplied non-perishable food hampers and personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Post-secondary students will have access to rent, utility, and technology support. Emergency child care assistance is also available, with rental and housing support for those in arrears. 

MN–S Minister of Health Marg Friesen told the Prince Albert Daily Herald that she finds the needs that people are having difficulty meeting “quite alarming” especially when it comes to finding a safe place to stay while self-isolating or accessing PPE. 

“We were finding a shortage of places where people could go to isolate,” Friesen said. 

She said MN–S is looking to fill those gaps for as many citizens as possible. Anyone who is self-isolating, whether it be mandatory or voluntary, can reach out for help so that they have what they need. 

That includes people who are not home-owners, are “in transition” or don’t have a place to stay.

Athabasca MLA Buckley Belanger, who tested positive for Coronavirus and has recovered, said the path from diagnosis to recovery was difficult for himself and his family.  Belanger’s wife and grandson also tested positive and MN-S put Belanger up in a hotel room to self-isolate. 

Belanger’s granddaughter tested negative for the virus and had to self-isolate in a separate room nearby to avoid the risk of transmission at home.

“I went through that process of isolation, and I can tell you it is a traumatic experience,” Belanger said. 

“We had lost our taste, we lost our ability to smell… the headaches and the fever and the coughing – you go through that for two or three days. Then as you begin to recover you’re isolated for 10 more days in a hotel room and your mind plays tricks on you,” Belanger said.

“The health district does check on you once a day. But I’ll tell you, you’re in that room by yourself facing an overactive mind.” 

He said that being alone in his hotel room he began to ruminate on worst-case scenarios, that he is thankful didn’t play out.

“1.5-million people have died from COVID-19 worldwide. You sit in that room and think about that day after day, hour after hour. And it drags on,” Belanger said. 

He said mental health support is key for people who test positive for the virus. 

On top of that he said the virus has torn apart much of the community networks that northerners rely on in times of disease, grief and mourning.  

“When we generally have problems, we help each other. We’re there for each other and we sit and we pay our last respects and we support the families. A lot of families went through this on their own,” Belanger said.

“But the sad, sad part and the sad impact of COVID-19 was many family members had to bury their own, on their own, because nobody could attend the wake services or pay their last respects. 

That was one of the toughest human tolls that I saw in some of these northern communities. The fear, the misinformation, the uncertainty, the stress on people’s lives, and then you lose someone. And it’s so hard for people to stay away because ot COVID-19.”

Métis Nation–Saskatchewan named mental health as a priority. Addictions and crisis support is available to citizens alongside “culturally specific” mental wellness counseling. 

“The ability of MN–S to be responsive to the emerging needs of our citizens is of the utmost importance. We are committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of our Métis citizens, particularly those who are immunocompromised, alone or isolated,” Friesen said. 

“We are supporting children, we’re supporting families and adults, single parents, and Elders throughout the pandemic and beyond.” 

Belanger said gaps in social services have compounded the situation as some low income residents who are no longer eligible for CERB are cut off from regular benefits, making it harder to weather the pandemic.

“Low income people had the most difficult time in the pandemic,” Belanger said.

He called on the province to expand social services under these “special circumstances.”

“There was a provision within social services for unique and critical hardships that a family could face.  Well COVID-19 is the greatest health crisis in the last 30 to 40 years,” Belanger said.

The province has previously defended clawing back provincial support for those who are on CERB benefits and also social services. 

In September, then Social Services Minister Paul Merriman told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that he stands by a decision to claw back cash from people who collected federal pandemic benefits and provincial income assistance at the same time.

“We did nothing to change any of the dollars that were going out,” Merriman said.

“Their income didn’t change. The CERB program … was designed for people who lost their income due to COVID-19. Our clients didn’t lose their income due to COVID-19.”

Merriman said he believes Saskatchewan’s approach is reasonable. Social Services did not claw back federal benefits for childcare or disability offered earlier this year, but since CERB is a wage replacement program he feels it’s fundamentally different, he said.

He argued social services’ programs are designed as a “safety net” and the “funder of last resort” and noted recipients have an obligation to report any changes in their circumstances to social workers.

“I’m not faulting them for applying for the revenue. What I’m saying is they had a duty to report to us if they were receiving an income from some other means,” he said

Merriman is now health minister.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Jennifer Graham told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in a written statement that the province is doing what it can to help northerners weather the pandemic.

“The Ministry of Health and its health system partners recognize that Indigenous communities as well as people in northern and remote locations face greater risks which make them more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Graham said. 

“We acknowledge the unique challenges faced by the residents of northern Saskatchewan, including the need to import essential goods and travel for essential services”

Graham said that in response to a spike in northern community cases this spring  the SHA, provincial and federal governments worked with northern leaders to “quickly mobilize resources and supports.” 

She said an “aggressive and broad testing strategy”  was launched alongside contact tracing to “contain possible spread as quickly as possible.” 

This  strategy included door-to-door testing and the “introduction of Rapid COVID-19 testing with GeneXpert® testing throughout the province,” including the north.

“The SHA has also provided additional support in responding to COVID in the North, including testing sites, equipment, and staff required to complete contact tracing and surveillance,” Graham said.   

For its part MN-S said it is working to ease those hardships for Métis citizens anywhere in Saskatchewan. 

“We continue to work closely with federal and provincial governments, First Nations, Tribal Councils and local municipalities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 across the province,” McCallum said. 

Friesen is encouraging citizens in need to reach out and offices will remain open during the holiday season. 

“COVID-19 doesn’t stop because of the holidays, unfortunately. So we will still be responding based on need… We’re not going to shut down for two weeks because it’s holiday season, we still need to provide that support regardless,” Friesen said.

She said these benefits are being made as widely available as possible within the framework of Métis citizenship.

For details of the COVID-19 support program and application forms, MN–S citizens can visit www.metisnationsk.com/COVID, call 1-833-343-8285 or email COVID19@mns.work.

MN–S mental wellness and addictions support can be reached Monday to Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m or through their 24-hour crisis line at 1-877-767-7572. 

With files from Zak Vescera/Saskatoon StarPhoenix