Petition calling for better, targeted COVID-19 supports for Indigenous communities gaining steam

Indigenous leaders from across Canada are calling on the federal government to do more to protect Indigenous communities from what they fear could become a deadly and disastrous spread of COVID-19.

Over 52,000 people have signed the petition on, calling on the federal government to plan to avert “catastrophic consequences” should there be further outbreaks in remote Indigenous communities.

The petition’s authors are asking the federal government to recognize the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), urgently enhance health care capacity in communities, expand and enhance testing and outbreak control and impose travel restrictions according to individual communities or regions. 

High-profile signees include:

• Isadore Day, CEO Bimaadzwin

• Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Commissioner Truth and Reconciliation 

• Michele Audette, Commissioner MMIWG 

• Tony Belcourt, Founding President of the Métis Nation of Ontario 

• Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, Nishnawabe Aski Nation

• Dr. David Suzuki, Science broadcaster and environmental activist 

• Jesse Wente, Broadcaster, ED Indigenous Screen Office Grand Chief Southern Chiefs Organization, Manitoba 

• Dr. Anna Banerji, Co-chair Indigenous Health Conference (IHC) 

• Michele-Elise Burnett President Kakekalanicks LTD, Co-chair IHC

• Allison Deer, Bimaadzwin, Senior Projects Advisor

• Bryan Hendry, Bimaadzwin, Director of Marketing and Communications

• Mae Katt, Primary Health Care Nurse Practitioner

• Angela DeMontigny, Cree/Metis designer 

• Kevin Sandy, President Iroquois Lacrosse Program 

• Rodney Haring, Director Centre for Indigenous Cancer Research

Dr. Anna Banerji, in addition to co-chairing the Indigenous Health Conference, has extensive experience working with Indigenous communities across Canada. She’s an infectious disease physician and public health specialist, as well as a faculty member at the University of Toronto.

She said health disparities and past experience show how urgent the need is to increase support for Indigenous communities across Canada before COVID-19 can get a foothold.

“When COVID first started, they gave a really small amount of money for Indigenous peoples and we know that already, they are starting with significant health disparities to begin with in terms of housing, food (security), overcrowding and access to health care.”

An investigation involving the Daily Herald, StarPhoenix and Institute for Investigative Journalism found that more than 28 Saskatchewan First Nations are more than 50 km away from a COVID-19 care facility.

Further, it found that four of those communities had a large proportion of its population aged 55 or over and six had at least one-third of its residents living in crowded households, which make it harder to socially distance to prevent the virus’ spread.

In May, some First Nations said they did not have enough PPE, or feared they would run out soon.

Saskatchewan also saw an outbreak in the far north. While the number of Indigenous people who tested positive is not available, Indigenous Services Canada says it knows of 85 on-reserve cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan. The only province with more confirmed cases reported by Indigenous Services Canada is Alberta, at 129.

The situation isn’t unique to Saskatchewan.

“These are issues across Canada,” she said. “Some communities are doing really well, but that is by far the exception.”

She cited issues such as access to clean water, overcrowded or insufficient housing and food security.

According to the Council of Canadians, at any given time, there are more than 100 drinking water advisories in First Nations across Canada.

According to the Canadian Institute of Child Health, more than a quarter of on-reserve First Nations people live in crowded homes, a rate that is seven times greater than that of non-Indigenous people. About 43 per cent of First Nations houses on reserve are in need of major repairs.

Banerji said Canada should learn from the H1N1 pandemic.

Despite representing about 4.3 per cent of the population, Indigenous people represented 27.8 per cent of all hospital admissions due to H1N1. Some First Nations in Manitoba asked for help, and instead got body bags.

Banerji’s friend, Isadore Day, said something had to be done.

“We can’t just sit around and wait for COVID to decimate our communities,” Banerji recalled Day saying.

She offered to start a petition.

“Very quickly we had a lot of Indigenous leaders sign-on,” Banerji said.

“They understand the baseline disparities. Throw in a virus on top of that targets the elderly, they could not just lose the elders, but lose a lot of the language, culture, history, traditions, etc. We thought, just like usual, the government is really not recognizing the funding and resources needed in these communities.”

The federal government has announced about $900 million in targeted support for Indigenous communities fighting COVID-19. Banerji said that’s not nearly enough. Now is the time to act, she said, before a second wave, some experts are expecting, spreads through remote communities.

“(Indigenous people) get two-thirds the funding for education, a fraction for social services, less access to health care — it’s really an apartheid system,” she said.

“The fact the government has thrown around billions, just like that, to keep things going, they could fix that (people) don’t have access to clean water. That just isn’t acceptable anymore.”

Banerji said calling it an apartheid system isn’t an exaggeration.

“We expect Indigenous people to live in conditions we wouldn’t accept for ourselves, our family and our loved ones. When you have a system where what you access is determined by race, that’s apartheid. People think that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not.”

Banerji added that many of these concerns and disparities have existed before COVID-19, and the pandemic only adds to the urgency. The authors of the petition know money alone is not enough, which is why they attached a list of specific actions the federal government could take.

“We don’t want to address concerns when there is an outbreak and everybody is dying,” she said.

“We’ve got to do something. We’re done. I, personally am done with this. I see the discrimination.”

The 50,000-plus signatures the petition has gained give Banerji hope that more people are coming to terms with systemic racism faced by Indigenous people living in Canada.

“These are longstanding health issues that more and more Canadians just don’t feel are right. To me, and to all of us, these are human rights violations.”

The petition was started weeks ago but recently began to pick up steam, including being noticed by the federal government.

Banerji said Indigenous Services Canada seems to be receptive to the petition and has begun to respond to some degree. But she, and the authors of the petition, would like to see a publicly-available strategic plan that outlines what the federal government hopes to do.

“(Trudeau says) there’s no more important relationship than that with Indigenous peoples. His actions don’t show it. You have to start fixing the playing field. More and more Canadians are disgusted by the disparities as more become aware of them. These are not the values we have in Canada.”

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in First Nations communities in provinces, as of July 15:

• 351 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19

• 30 hospitalizations

• 312 recovered cases

• Six deaths

By region:

• BC – 42

• Alberta – 129

• Saskatchewan – 85

• Ontario – 60

• Quebec – 35

Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19 is coordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists. For more information, please visit

Report finds 28 Sask. First Nations more than 50 km away from COVID-19 care facility

A weeks-long project examining pandemic and demographic data has found ongoing concerns among First Nations communities in Saskatchewan about distance from health care compounded by crowded housing, communities with a large proportion of older adults and difficulty accessing PPE amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, compiled as part of the Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ)’s Project Pandemic in partnership with the Prince Albert Daily Herald and Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Regina Leader-Post used a combination of data, access-to-information requests and interviews with individual coordinators to uncover several risk factors faced by the province’s First Nations communities, risks heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Interactive maps were created and data examined using Esri ArcGIS technology.

The data highlights the greater risks faced by residents in Indigenous communities. There are some indicators, that so far, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19.

According to Statistics Canada data, 55 per cent of the population of the Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River electoral district, which covers the entire northern portion of the province, is First Nations.

Of the province’s 795 cases, 334 — or 42 per cent — are from far north, despite the region accounting for less than ten per cent of the province’s population. Many of the cases are attributed to outbreaks seen in La Loche and in Clearwater River Dene Nation.

A far north resident in their 70s was declared deceased Thursday. It was the province’s 14th COVID-19-related death.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan have been Indigenous patients as the province doesn’t track health data by race, despite calls from advocates who say it could help identify gaps in care in at-risk communities.

— Map created using using Esri ArcGIS technology

Having trouble loading the map? Click here.

Distance from care

An IIJ analysis found that 28 First Nations are more than 50 km from a hospital designated for COVID-19 care. Pandemic response coordinators in Hatchet Lake and Muskeg Lake First Nations are among those who said distance from care is a concern.

“It is always a concern,” the coordinator from Hatchet Lake told IIJ reporters in May. They don’t have a hospital in the nation, but they do have a health care with primary care nurses.

Jordan Revke, the pandemic coordinator for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, which sits about 100 km north of Saskatoon, says that so far, the community has not seen any COVID-19 cases.

Revke suspects that if anyone gets the virus they will go to Saskatoon for treatment, but he’s not sure how they’d get there. It’s not uncommon for ambulances to take 40 minutes to an hour to arrive, he said. In the meantime, the First Nation is looking to designate a space on the reserve for COVID-19 patients.

Coordinators in seven other First Nations communities also said they were concerned about their distance from a health centre, even though four were within 50 km of a hospital offering COVID-19 care.

Not all hospitals in the province are designated for COVID-19 patients. In the north, health centres accept both patients with COVID-19 and patients with other health issues. In the south, the 20 COVID-19 health centres are only for patients with COVID-19; patients with other health issues must seek help elsewhere.

A statement from the Ministry of Health said the Ministry and Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) are “confident that people will receive appropriate care in a timely manner” and focused on providing the support and coordinated response necessary to help residents in the north during the pandemic.”

The SHA recognized the need “to have all of its facilities in the north provide COVID care, not just those facilities designated for COVID specific treatment.” 

“…we are confident residents can access COVID care at their nearest health care facility,” the statement says.

Having trouble loading the map? Click here.

Indigenous communities seeing overcrowding, large populations of seniors

Distance from care wasn’t the only risk factor flagged by the IIJ report. Data analysis also shows overcrowded housing, large populations of residents aged 55 or older and a lack of access to PPE.

According to the IIJ data, of the 28 First Nations more than 50 km from a hospital, four had a large proportion of population aged 55 or over and six had at least one-third of its residents living in crowded households. Crowded living situations make it harder to socially distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly a quarter of Muskeg Lake’s 290 band members living on reserve are 55 and older. “To try to get them (to a hospital) transportation-wise can be hard on them,” Revke said.

Older residents are much more likely to suffer COVID-19 complications, or even death. Across Canada, almost 97 per cent of all deaths have been in residents aged 60 or older. That age group also accounts for about 60 per cent of all ICU admissions.

The Ministry of Health said it understands that Indigneous communities, especially those in northern and remote locations, face greater risks (of COVID-19) and said it has been working with First Nations and Metis stakeholders throughout the pandemic.

“Our response to the outbreak situation has been to ensure that the response plan be tailored to the risks posed in the community, in the geographic area, and culturally appropriate for the local population.”

Some First Nations were also lacking PPE.

In interviews with reporters in May, four First Nations said they did not have enough protective equipment, and another two said they had concerns about running out of masks. Five first Nations, at the time, were lacking N-95 masks. Some communities were relying on the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) and Meadow Lake Tribal Council for donations of protective equipment.

The Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) said in April that about 40 per cent of its health sites did not have the PPE to support an outbreak. The agency said much of its PPE had expired. According to MBC radio, in late May, they repeated their concerns to a House of Commons Committee. Afterwards, several companies reached out to see if they needed ore PPE. NITHA is responsible for health care in the province’s far north and is a partnership between First Nations, the province and the federal government.

Beardy’s and Okemasis’ First Nation is not served by NITHA. Emergency response manager Brenda Seeseequasis said in May that the community had a “minimal” amount of safety equipment, such as masks, faces shields, gloves and monitors. They were looking into getting supplies through FSIN and other partners.

Seeseequasis said the concern surrounding COVID-19 was high. The community, at that time, was turning its daycare into a self-isolating/self-monitoring facility so workers from Alberta didn’t have to isolate at home with their families. She said the community didn’t have enough masks to hand out, so community members stepped up to sew non-medical fabric masks for those without.

Seeseequasis was unavailable for comment when reporters attempted to check in this week. The other First Nations that said they were lacking PPE in May were also unavailable for comment.

Belanger says government acted too slow

The concerns surrounding distance from care, crowding and lack of PPE are no surprise for NDP MLA Buckley Belanger, who spent 10 weeks in lockdown in the province’s northwest during the initial outbreak in La Loche.

Last Monday, during a committee meeting, Belanger and fellow northern MLA Doyle Vermette grilled Municipal Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Lori Carr over the government’s initial response to northern COVID-19 concerns.

Belanger said northern leaders understood their communities were at risk.

“When we sat there with them, the leadership said … we live in the remote part of the province. We live a long ways away. We live in close quarters with teach other. There’s overcrowding in these homes,” he said. “

Northern communities, including First Nations, had asked for $10 million to support response efforts.

What they got instead was about $370,000, of which $20,000 went to La Loche to help them fight a COVID-19 outbreak.

Carr, though, disputed that account. She said after negotiations the northern MLAs agreed to accept $5 million in support, something Vermette and Belanger denied.

While $350,000 has gone towards checkstops, a further $4.3 million in support was delivered in the form of self-isolation trailers sent to La Loche, type one and two firefighters manning checkstops, education programs in multiple language broadcast over the radio, cleaning supplies and cots delivered to Buffalo Narrows and La Loche and food security programs. That doesn’t include additional staff sent by SHA.

“The resources were extensive,” Carr said.

“We extended millions of dollars of resources to the north for trying to bend the curve … trying to ensure the spread didn’t grow more than it did. Just because we didn’t write a cheque doesn’t mean we’re not contributing.”

In a statement, the SHA said it is working on building a task force with First Nations and northern stakeholders to further mitigate COVID-19.

Since more aid came in May, Belanger acknowledged some things have gotten better. However, he suggested that if it had come sooner, before an outbreak was declared, COVID-19 illnesses and deaths could have been prevented.

“We tried our darnedest (to keep out COVID-19) … and with no resources or help, we lost that battle,” he said.

Belanger wants the province to acknowledge its mistakes in order to avoid a similar situation should a second wave occur, as some experts have indicated.

“We want to make sure there are lessons so it doesn’t happen again.”

Other communities have also seen an improvement. Reached by phone, coordinators at both Lac La Ronge Indian Band and at Cumberland House Cree Nation said this week there are fewer concerns than in the pandemic’s earlier days. Lac La Ronge, which described its concern as “high” in May, now says that concern is “medium.”

Kevin Roberts is part of the pandemic response team in Lac La Ronge. He said the virus hasn’t hit there yet, but they’re ready if it does.

Early concerns such as a lack of health professionals and equipment in many communities have been resolved. Now, it’s a matter of keeping people safe.

“Some of it boils down to just not respecting the rules and guidelines that have been set forth by Sask. Health,” he said.

He said a recent northern outbreak linked to a funeral highlighted the risks if people aren’t careful about physical distancing.

“People go out and they come back to their communities, spread to each other and it’s just unfortunate,” he said.

“I don’t understand the province opening up,” he said.

Roberts said the focus is on keeping the message out there and encouraging people to follow SHA guidelines.

“We’re just continuing to be vigilant on our end.”

— With files from Jayda Taylor, Prince Albert Daily Herald; Amanda Short, Saskatoon StarPhoenix; emerging reporter Declan Keogh and IIJ reporters Angela Amato, Jaida Beaudin-Herney and Karina Zapata

Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19 is coordinated by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists. For more information, please visit

Project pandemic: mapping the outbreak

In an effort to track COVID-19 and its impact on different populations, especially the most vulnerable, journalists and journalism students at news organizations and universities from across Canada have come together to compile data from government health authorities and self-reported information compiled by

The map, linked below, is interactive. Click on its data points for more information on infections from across the country.

For a larger map, click here.

You can do your part to help us understand how COVID-19 is spreading and affecting you.

Do you have a story of a health care worker who went above and beyond the call of duty? Share it here.

Do you know someone who died because of COVID-19? Share their story here.

This project is coordinated by the Institute for Investigative Journalism with the support of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

And for more COVID-19 related resources, check out the following

Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 curves, tracked daily

On mobile? Click here.

Things to do

Virtual Arts Centre