I will now call this meeting to order.
Welcome to meeting number six of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs. I'd like to start by acknowledging that I am joining you today from the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabe and Chonnonton nations.
Pursuant to the order of reference of April 20, 2020, the committee is meeting for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today's meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. During this meeting, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entire committee.
In order to facilitate the work of our interpreters and ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. As you are speaking, if you are planning to alternate from one language to another, you will also need to switch the interpretation channel so that it will align with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching languages. That's the icon in the middle bottom of the screen, which on mine now says “English”. Unfortunately, it has an American flag, but we'll change that. That's the one you will click on to the language that you're speaking and if you're going to change to French, then change the origin language there.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can either click on the microphone icon to activate your mike or you can hold down the space bar while you are speaking. When you release the bar, your mike will mute itself, just like a walkie-talkie button.
I remind you that all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. Should members need to request the floor outside of their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order. If a member wishes to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, they should use the “raise hand” function. This will signal to the chair your interest to speak. To do so, you should click on “participants” at the bottom of the screen. When the list pops up, you will see that you can click on “raise hand” beside your name on the participants button.
When you're speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. The use of headsets, as we have discovered, is strongly encouraged. If you have ear buds with a microphone, you should hold the microphone nearer to your mouth when you are speaking to boost the sound quality for the interpreters.
Should any technical challenges arise, for example, in relation to interpretation or if you are accidentally disconnected, please advise the chair or clerk immediately and the technical team will work to resolve them. Please note that we may need to suspend during these times as we need to ensure that all members are able to participate fully.
Before we get started, can everyone click on their screens in the top right-hand corner to switch to the gallery view? With this view, you should be able to see all of the participants in a grid. This will ensure that all video participants can see each another.
During the meeting, we will also follow the same rules that usually apply to our normal meetings. Once again, we will have witnesses for two hours, but I'm going to ask the clerk to make a comment before we start.
In view of the fact that it is now 2:23, will we have an absolute deadline at the end of the meeting? Can you give us an indication, Madam Clerk, of how the timing will work today, in view of the delay with the technology?
Kwe. Tansi. Ulaakut. Boohzoo. Good afternoon. Bonjour.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I'm here, very close to Canada's Parliament, on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
Mr. Chair, I'm pleased to join all of you, including my colleagues, Ministers and , virtually. With me as well to answer your questions from Indigenous Services Canada are Jean-François Tremblay, my deputy minister; Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for the first nations and Inuit health branch; Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health for FNIHB; Mary Kapelus, assistant deputy minister for education and social development programs; and Chris Duschenes, director general, lands and economic development sector.
On behalf of all of us, I'd like to thank the committee for this opportunity to provide an update on how our government has been working with first nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, indigenous organizations and communities, as well as provincial and territorial governments to mitigate the threat posed by the global pandemic of COVID-19.
As of April 30, we've seen 131 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in first nations communities on reserve. We're also tracking one confirmed case in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.
To support indigenous communities in preparing for and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, our government has allocated over $740 million to meet the public health needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis communities. To date, more than $59.8 million in funding has been used to purchase equipment for medical personnel and to support communities' preparedness measures. That funding is in addition to our government's budget 2019 investment of about $80 million to support preparedness for public health emergencies like this one. That investment was used to develop a network of regional coordinators and strengthen first nations communities' ability to deal with public health emergencies and pandemics.
Indigenous Services Canada continues to maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for use in first nations communities during public health emergencies. The stockpiles are available to first nations communities that may require personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of health care workers and others supporting the delivery of health services during a public health emergency like this pandemic.
To date, we have provided communities with 167,000 surgical gowns, 200,000 surgical masks and about half a million vinyl gloves. That is in addition to equipment already provided by the provinces and territories. It is very important to note that this is a collaborative effort. We continue to respond quickly to requests and assess them within 24 hours.
It's important to underscore that many community and service providers are adapting their operations to respect the requirement for physical distancing. National indigenous organizations, such as the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation and First Peoples Wellness Circle, have developed a series of resources related to COVID-19 that are available online. One of our supports has been to financially assist the First Peoples Wellness Circle in developing an online platform for its network of local multidisciplinary mental wellness teams that are currently offering services to 344 communities.
Also, working with the provider, we've increased the number of crisis intervention counsellors on shift at the Hope for Wellness helpline, which is now receiving more than 100 calls and chats a week linked to COVID-19. The experience of self-isolation and physical distancing and having family members who may be at higher risk or who fall ill can have significant and real impacts on mental health. We recognize this and are engaged with partners to support solutions to address and bolster mental health, particularly for youth.
Supporting indigenous youth is another key area of our focus. The department is working with indigenous partners, including youth organizations, to support and promote indigenous resources for youth. For example, We Matter is an indigenous-led youth organization focused on life promotion and messages of hope and resilience. They've developed tool kits, which are available for youth, teachers and support workers to help youth and those who support youth.
Similarly, the Canadian Roots Exchange has set up the creation community support fund to support youth mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic with local solutions.
Members of this committee may recall that on March 18, the Government of Canada allocated $305 million towards a new, distinctions-based indigenous community support fund to address immediate needs related to COVID-19 in indigenous communities and amongst urban indigenous populations. This funding is part of the COVID-19 economic response plan and is in addition to the needs-based support for first nations and Inuit health and emergency management.
We recognize that post-secondary students are facing an unprecedented situation because of COVID-19.
A week ago, on April 22, the announced nearly $9 billion in funding for post-secondary students and recent graduates, including indigenous students. We know that many indigenous students face unique and special situations related to financial stability, employment opportunities or just the ability to continue their education as planned.
That is why $75.2 million will be provided to support first nations, Inuit and Métis post-secondary students while they deal with COVID-19. This is over and above existing funding for financial assistance programs for indigenous post-secondary students. It could cover the cost of technological equipment as courses move online, allow for summer school enrolment, and cover expenses related to food, child support, housing and transportation. In the event of delayed graduation, it could cover an additional academic year and associated expenses.
Ultimately, this funding is meant to ensure that indigenous post-secondary students are able to continue or start their studies as planned despite barriers posed by COVID-19.
We're also taking steps to support indigenous-owned businesses during this crisis. The Government of Canada will provide up to $306.8 million in funding to help small and medium-sized indigenous businesses through the network of aboriginal financial institutions that offer financing to indigenous businesses. This measure will help an estimated 6,000 indigenous-owned businesses endure this difficult time and will hopefully provide the stability they need to persist.
Indigenous businesses, including indigenous government-owned corporations and partnerships, are also now eligible to apply for the Canada emergency wage subsidy to support them in their efforts to retain and rehire laid-off employees and weather the current challenges. Taxable indigenous government-owned corporations are already eligible for the wage subsidy. We've adjusted the eligibility for the wage subsidy to include indigenous government-owned corporations and partnerships to support them to retain employees who are still on the payroll and to rehire workers previously laid off. I know this is important to committee members, because it's been raised by a number of you, and I appreciate your advocacy, which made a difference.
The government has also established a business credit availability program to provide $40 billion in additional support through the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada, which are working together with private sector lenders to coordinate credit solutions for individual businesses, which some indigenous businesses may be able to leverage. This is important.
Finally, I’d like to bring attention to the positive progress we have seen in our support for first nations indigenous people off reserve and in the urban indigenous populations generally.
We recently concluded a proposal-based process to distribute $15 million to organizations that provide critical services to first nations off reserve and indigenous peoples living in urban centres. This funding is part of the government’s indigenous community support fund, which I referred to earlier. To date, 94 proposals have been supported through the indigenous community support fund. This includes support for friendship centres as they continue their important work to serve urban indigenous communities in the face of this pandemic.
Again, thank you for the advocacy of members on this committee who pushed so hard.
We know that friendship centres, for example, are playing a crucial role, with their key support ranging from delivering food to families, young people and elders; responding to calls for assistance and support; to providing crucial mental health and cultural support for urban indigenous community members.
As our response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues and adapts to new data, we ask indigenous communities and partners to continue to assess their evolving needs. We ask them to reach out to their regional departmental contacts so that we may assist them in supporting community members. At the same time, we continue to focus on longer-term goals such as housing, employment and ending drinking-water advisories.
We are determined to respond to the evolving needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis communities and their members and to respond to requests from Indigenous communities themselves.
That is why, for example, the Canadian Rangers are currently helping to distribute food and supplies and to provide medical assistance not only in Nunavik, but also in northern Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and northern Quebec. The Canadian Armed Forces and their Ranger detachments have extensive experience with assisting communities, sometimes their own communities, and everyone in Canada.
We have seen Rangers and Canadian Armed Forces members stand up and step up wherever Canadians need it most all across the country: in our long-term care facilities, in areas with acute resource needs, and in remote areas of the country. That is why we continue to work together to improve access to essential services for indigenous peoples.
Today our thoughts and prayers go to the military personnel who lost their lives earlier this week in the helicopter crash in the Ionian Sea, as well as to their families. Canada is grieving with them as well, as we all try to come to grips with this tragic incident.
The government has designed and supported a series of measures to provide timely and direct support to all Canadians and peoples of Canada in response to this crisis. These measures will help us to meet the needs of Canadian households and to ensure that Canadians can pay for essentials like housing and groceries during this difficult time. Further, these measures offer timely financial support to indigenous peoples in Canada, no matter where they reside.
On another note, I want to thank the members of this committee in particular who have reached out either directly to me, to parliamentary secretaries or to my staff to advocate for the continued health response to a health problem. This is not a partisan issue, and I want to thank you for parking that and moving towards ensuring we have a health response to a health problem, because at the end of the day, we're talking about the lives of Canadians, indigenous peoples living in Canada, and that is precisely the measure by which we will all be judged as we tackle this epidemic we are all confronted with on a daily basis.
I want to thank everyone on this committee who has reached out, talked to my parliamentary secretaries and done amazing work to advocate for the people reaching out to them. We are taking a number of measures and putting them forward in record time. Obviously, mistakes are made and when you point them out we do our best to adjust. I want to thank you all for that. I want to highlight the non-partisan nature of the outreach, and highlight your character as humans in having done that. I appreciate that deeply. My staff appreciates it, and indeed I believe everyone on the committee appreciates it.
Again, working together, we can save lives and we can flatten the curve. Meegwetch. Nakurmiik. Thank you. Merci. Mahsi cho.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It is an honour to appear virtually before this committee for this important study on COVID-19 in indigenous communities.
While the House of Commons is on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin people, I am joining you today from my constituency in Toronto, on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. We honour all the indigenous people who paddled these waters and whose moccasins walked these lands. I would also like to recognize the traditional territories from which all of you are participating today.
Our officials—Daniel Watson, Ross Pattee and Jeff Moore—will be on the next panel supporting us, but I, like Minister Miller, want to thank our parliamentary secretaries, who meet with us every morning at 9:15. Pam, Gary and Yvonne have done extraordinary work, which has been spread out, and important suggestions have been brought to us.
We know that from the beginning of the threat of this pandemic, all Canadians were concerned that first nations, Métis and Inuit would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We know that long-standing social and economic inequalities and inequities mean that indigenous communities are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and that the impact of an outbreak in indigenous communities would be greater.
We continue to be impressed with the impressive response of communities that since H1N1 have worked hard to develop their pandemic plans. They have now been able to execute their plans and keep their communities safe. Our hearts are with those whose communities have lost a loved one, particularly the 'Namgis First Nation, which recently lost a beloved elder.
Our primary focus has been to ensure that we all work in partnership with indigenous communities, as we know they are the best placed to act on the needs of their members so they can ensure that everyone is safe and healthy.
We are seeing community-driven solutions that are working. We were very proud to support the initiative of Dene Regional Chief Yakeleya in the Northwest Territories. Families there chose to return to the land as a way to protect themselves from the virus and promote healing and mental health.
Having strong leadership and strong collaboration and coordination across the board is how we have been addressing this pandemic. Indigenous leaders have demonstrated their tremendous resilience, innovation and leadership, and they must continue to be involved in decision-making at all levels to ensure that the supports the Government of Canada provides to address COVID-19 meet the real needs in their communities. We have worked the First Nations Financial Management Board, the First Nations Tax Commission, the First Nations Finance Authority and a broad range of indigenous organizations that are developing the measures they need to support communities.
Protecting women and children from domestic violence during this pandemic has also been an important issue that needed to be addressed. We invested an additional $10 million to support shelters in first nations communities during this pandemic. I am working with and her provincial and territorial partners to further the work on the shadow pandemic of violence against women and the need to address the calls for justice on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, two-spirit people and those who are LGBTQQIA.
COVID-19 underlines the importance of reflecting on the difference between the medical model, in which I was trained, and the medicine wheel. It is time to reflect on achieving more health—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually—so that we reduce the burden on our health care systems. That's what flattening the curve means. It is the knowledge keepers and healers focused on the well-being of all in a very holistic way. It's time that we listen to them.
Tommy Douglas stated that the goal of medicare was to keep people well, not just patch them up when they get sick. That's what the pandemic is teaching us as we stay home, wash our hands and physically distance. Flattening the curve means reducing the number of those who get sick so that we can stay within the capacity of our beloved and cherished health care system. It means more health so that we need less health care.
COVID-19 has finally convinced all Canadians that health promotion and disease prevention must be our priority.
Thank you for all you are doing in your communities. You set the example of coming together while remaining apart for everyone's good during the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to your questions and your advice. We are indeed stronger together.
Meegwetch. Marci. Nakurmiik. Thank you. Merci.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and everyone online, for this important meeting.
It's a great pleasure for me to appear before the committee today. I'd like to begin by acknowledging that Canada's Parliament is on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people, and I am speaking to you from my office in Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, which is in the homeland of the Métis nation as well as Treaty 1 territory.
Today, I'd like to give you an update on the situation of COVID-19 in the north. Since the beginning of the crisis, I have been in regular contact with territorial partners, premiers and first nations, Inuit and Métis partners across the north. I know that the only way we have any hope of preventing the spread of COVID–19 in the north is by taking an approach informed by northerners. They have the ideas, the innovations and the solutions we need to implement in order to prevent and stop the spread of the virus. We are committed to listening and doing everything we can to support territorial governments in preventing and responding to COVID. Territorial governments have done a tremendous job of protecting their communities and keeping people safe, and I support their efforts and continue to work with them throughout this pandemic.
Canada is directly addressing these unique territorial needs with more than $130 million of funding toward four key priorities: health and social services, essential airline services, supporting small and medium-sized businesses, and ensuring access to adequate nutrition and essential goods.
To support health and social services, the Government of Canada has provided $72.6 million to the territories, which builds on the $15 million in funding to provinces and territories through the initial Canada health transfer. It is helping territories to address the critical priorities they have identified to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The government is helping territories to put in place solid measures in order to prepare and respond to COVID-19.
To support essential airline services, which are a critical link in maintaining the supply chain for the movement of essential goods, services and medicines to the north, Canada is providing an initial investment, covering a three-month period, of up to $17.3 million among the territories.
This investment, along with investments by the territorial governments, will help northern air carriers to maintain a basic network of routes and services. These services are vital to ensuring that people living in remote fly-in communities have continued access to food, medical supplies, and other essential goods and services.
Like in the rest of Canada, many businesses in the north are already struggling with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. To assist businesses with operating costs not already covered by other Government of Canada measures, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency will provide $15 million in non-repayable support for territorial businesses through the northern business relief fund. The fund will provide up to $100,000 to businesses struggling to cover their operating costs.
As the COVID crisis continues to evolve, we also recognize the increased costs of many essential goods in the north, and the increased financial pressures that families are facing. That's why we are providing an additional one-time investment of $25 million to nutrition north Canada to increase the federal subsidy rate for essential items such as nutritious food and personal hygiene products. This makes these essentials more affordable for northern families, including indigenous families in the north, during these very challenging times.
We've also, as you know, implemented the harvesters support grant, which has been allocated to indigenous partners, and we are working diligently to flow the next wave of money very quickly. This grant, which was codeveloped with indigenous partners, helps northerners who return to traditional harvesting and food-sharing practices by alleviating the high costs associated with traditional hunting and harvesting of foods.
Furthermore, we've announced a distinctions-based funding of $45 million through the $305-million indigenous community support fund for Inuit-designed and implemented community-based solutions to prepare for and react to the spread of COVID-19 within their communities.
The Government of Canada is committed to supporting the health, the safety and the well-being of northerners through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, to ensure that they are able to recover and thrive in the future. That means that we will keep listening carefully to and working closely with our territorial partners, our provincial partners, our indigenous partners and others to determine the best responses and approaches in our ongoing efforts to fight COVID-19.
Meegwetch. Marci. Nakurmiik. Thank you. Merci.
Thank you, Adam. This is an important question.
First, I want to take a second to recognize the important work of off-reserve indigenous organizations and local community organizations across the country that are supporting indigenous peoples. It's most often in an urban context and most often some of the most vulnerable, and this is a compounding factor in someone's susceptibility to getting COVID-19.
It's why on March 18 our government announced the funding through the COVID-19 economic response plan that included a $15 million fund channelled through the indigenous community support fund. This was the most expedient way to address a crying need that exists throughout Canada, frankly at any level of government, that has not gone fully satisfied and fully funded.
We streamlined—and this is important—the application process to about a week period, asking community organizations to submit what their requirements were. There was a screen of criteria that my team mobilized to look through, specifically focusing on a health response to the health problem, to assess quickly a number of the crying needs that exist.
I will confess to members that beyond the 94 organizations that were selected, there were many more with very good applications that would be worthy of funding. We had $15 million at the outset to disburse. I will say at the outset that this is not enough. Some great examples include the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, which requested and was then recommended for over $200,000; the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, which requested significant amounts of money and was accorded as much, $87,000; and the Tahltan, Kaska, Tlingit 3 Nations Society, which was awarded $22,000. These are all examples of organizations that are doing incredible work for vulnerable populations that aren't necessarily entirely served by their home communities, and that is something we recognized.
Again, these are service providers, so the network that we have with them in terms of governance is a bit different from if we were distributing funds to communities on the basis that we typically do. There was a process of request and response. Again, we are working hard to deploy additional funds.
Let me say this. This is a whole-of-government approach. The network of shelters that we have funded through the wage support, including $40 million for shelters, a great number of them serve indigenous peoples. A number of the Reaching Home homelessness initiatives that we've deployed—over $170 million—do serve indigenous people, but they are just not specific to indigenous peoples.
Again, I will acknowledge that this is not enough and we are working to serve more people in very vulnerable situations, and that's the work we will continue to do. Frankly, it's the result of the advocacy of people like you and other members of this panel that has brought this to fruition in such a short time.
As the and the member of Parliament for a riding in downtown Montreal, I am particularly preoccupied by these issues. You know as well as I do that the situation in downtown Montreal's long-term care community is catastrophic. The fact that people are dying—our seniors, the people who built this country—makes me very emotional. For the short term, we have to think about how the Canadian military can help these people in need. As a society, we also need to engage in a thought process about the long-term once the crisis arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is over, which won't be anytime soon.
First, I'd like to highlight the Quebec government's commitment to giving some indigenous communities the latitude to decide for themselves when their children will return to school. That being said, as a human being, I do wonder how we can ask indigenous communities to do what we, as non-indigenous people, are not doing. This question has been around for decades, if not centuries.
Regardless of which provinces and territories decide to lift restrictions, we have to think about how to adapt the supports provided to indigenous communities while taking into account the medical, public health and scientific guidelines that must be followed. It is possible to provide more support to the local economies of these communities, which serve regions, of course, and to provide them with medical assistance. As you know, these communities are already vulnerable because of unacceptable historical circumstances. That matters to me, just as it should matter to all Canadians.
We're not out of the woods yet. To flatten the curve, people have to follow strict medical and public health guidelines, and we expect everyone to do so. We can talk about lifting restrictions gradually at some point, but we have to make sure we don't overlook indigenous communities.
I just want to thank the staff and the ministers for their work over the last few weeks. I have heard from chiefs across Canada, and the majority have been satisfied with how our government has been proactive in keeping first nations communities safe during this pandemic and ensuring that the programs are also including them.
One of my questions—and perhaps, Dr. Gideon, you can talk about it—is on mental health. Mental health issues among indigenous people on reserve are overwhelming during normal periods. During COVID-19 there is a significant increase in despair, anxiety and depression on reserve.
To illustrate, I'd like to bring up two issues. The first is from my discussion with the Native Women's Association president, Lorraine Whitman, who talked about the vulnerability of women who are in toxic relationships, who feel trapped inside self-isolation, whereas otherwise they would be able to go out and get support. What are we doing to support indigenous women during this difficult time?
The other one is a little bit closer to home, and I spoke to the ministers about this. I was very saddened that in New Brunswick a young man named Brady Francis was tragically killed in a hit-and-run accident years ago, and unfortunately the man who stood trial was acquitted. Now, I don't want to talk about the case—this isn't the time for that—but one thing I really have to share is the kind of outcry from first nations youth across Canada at this time.
I have to read what's being tweeted and what is on Facebook, on social media: “I am fully and completely aware that I can be killed and there will be no consequence and repercussions because I'm first nations in Canada.”
Let that sink in a bit. This is a message being shared and received by first nations youth in our country during these already difficult times. This is not an isolated incident. It's been brought up many other times. Especially now during this COVID era, what are we able to do to help with those with mental health issues?
We've seen many inquiries and commissions that spoke to this issue.
How can we involve and inspire first nations youth so that instead of having despair, they have a sense of hope that they can be the change that we need to see by being judges, lawyers, and police officers? What steps can we take to give additional support on mental health for the youth during this difficult time and to let people know that our government is listening so that this despair gives way to hope, reconciliation and justice?
Wela'lioq. Thank you.