Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motion adopted by the committee earlier today, the committee is holding its first meeting for its study of support for indigenous communities through a second wave of COVID-19.
In a moment, I will introduce you to our special guests. Before that, I would like to start by acknowledging that I am joining you today from the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabe and Chonnonton first nations. Behind me, you'll see a picture of the statuary near my office in Stoney Creek in commemoration of the co-operation of all Canadians and first nations in the war of 1812. The themes address healing and reconciliation with the words “nations”, “allies”, “friendship” and “well-being”. I'm very proud to have that piece of artwork in our riding here in Hamilton.
Now I'd like to welcome our ministers and officials. We have with us the ; the ; and the .
Mr. Miller, I have you as our first speaker. Once again, we have six-minute rounds. I'll try to be as careful as I can to stay to the time in order to get all of our question rounds in.
Mr. Miller, the floor is yours for six minutes. Please go ahead.
I'm speaking to you this evening from the traditional territory of the Algonquin people here in Ottawa.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, I'm pleased to join you today, at least virtually, alongside my colleagues and . I also want to note the presence of Christiane Fox, deputy minister; Valerie Gideon, associate deputy minister; and Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health, first nations and Inuit health branch.
Members, as of October 26, we are aware of 362 active cases of COVID-19 in first nations communities. Since the beginning of this pandemic, we've recorded 1,254 confirmed cases in first nations communities, with 877 recoveries and, tragically, 15 deaths. This number of active cases represents the highest number of active cases to date. In addition, I can report 28 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 among Inuit in Nunavik, Quebec, and all have recovered.
In recent days and weeks, there has been an alarming rise in the number of active COVID-19 cases across the country, including in indigenous communities. We took a number of measures to support indigenous communities at the onset of this pandemic, and as we face the second wave of this pandemic, we are taking stock of what we've learned and applying those lessons rapidly.
We know that when local indigenous leadership is given the necessary resources, they are best placed to successfully respond to a crisis with immediate, innovative and proactive measures to ensure the safety of their members. The low case numbers experienced by first nations communities in the first wave was evidence of this. What is clear now, however, is that the second wave has impacted indigenous communities much harder than the first.
As in the first wave, we've put together and put into place...and ensured that the health and safety of indigenous peoples is my and the Government of Canada's utmost priority.
As the pandemic continues and continues to evolve, we are making sure to prioritize sustainable access to mental health services and continue to support indigenous communities. As such, we have invested new funding of $82.5 million, in addition to the $425 million in existing funding annually for community-based services that address the mental wellness needs of indigenous peoples.
These services comply with public health measures available, and, because of the pandemic, with many telehealth or virtual options, such as the Hope for Wellness Help Line.
We continue to work in partnership with indigenous organizations and communities to support the adaptation of mental health resources and services managed by indigenous communities, and will continue to do so throughout the pandemic and beyond it.
To support the unique challenges faced by indigenous businesses and economies, on June 11, we announced $117 million, plus a $16 million stimulus development fund to support the indigenous tourism industry. This funding builds on the $306.8 million previously announced to help indigenous small and medium-sized businesses.
The Government of Canada is also helping elementary and high school students by providing $112 million to support a safe return to first nations schools on reserve, in addition to the $2 billion being provided to the provinces and territories. And we are working to ensure the security and well-being of indigenous women and children by supporting and expanding a network of family violence prevention shelters for first nations communities across the country, and in the territories.
We continue to promote public health and safety measures and have, in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, been actively evaluating and acquiring approved point-of-care tests to meet the needs of indigenous communities, especially those in rural, remote and isolated areas.
As of October 19, 70 GeneXpert instruments had been deployed to enable access to rapid point-of-care testing by indigenous communities across the country.
I'd like to take a moment to thank the health professionals, in particular Indigenous Services Canada nurses, who are supporting indigenous communities across the country by providing quality and culturally appropriate care, testing, contact tracing, prevention and treatment during this pandemic.
I would be remiss if I did not mention an emergency in Neskantaga that has been front and centre in the last few days. The recent shutdown of Neskantaga's water distribution system is indeed alarming. My officials are working directly with the leadership of Neskantaga First Nation, alongside partners such as Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Matawa First Nations Management, to mitigate the situation and ensure that the community has the support they need until water can be fully restored. Yesterday, Indigenous Services Canada's lead engineer accompanied the Matawa technical team to inspect the community's water infrastructure and continue water sampling.
Funding will be provided for immediate repairs as necessary, and efforts have been redoubled to address the issues with the distribution system and to support the community's new water system to completion. This funding is in addition to the recent $4 million of funding increase towards the project that aims to lift the long-term boil water advisory in that community, bringing the total investment to over $16.4 million. The construction of the community's water treatment plant is in its final stages, and we are optimistic that it will be up and running soon. We will continue to work with the community leadership to find immediate and long-term solutions to this health emergency.
With that, I look forward to taking your questions.
Meegwetch. Nakurmiik. Marsi cho.
Kwe. Good evening.
Mr. Chair, I am honoured to appear virtually before this committee today to address the issues related to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, I am joining you from the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin people. I would also like to recognize the traditional territories from which all of you are participating.
We are joined here today by the Deputy Minister of CIRNAC, Daniel Quan-Watson, and Assistant Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs Serge Beaudoin, as well as by Mr. Joe Wild, Ms. Annie Boudreau, Mr. Martin Reiher, Ms. Valerie Gideon and Dr. Tom Wong.
First, I want to thank Dr. Wong and Dr. Gideon, who have briefed all three ministers almost every day since March. That has been, I think, making us all feel better about how well we have worked together on this.
I want to begin by honouring the memory of Joyce Echaquan, as we work together to eliminate the racism that still persists in all our institutions. I know that, as members of this very important committee, you are all working in every way you can to eliminate racism and ensure that all first nations, Inuit and Métis people are able to receive quality health care in dignity and cultural safety.
From the beginning of the pandemic, our priority has been to ensure that communities were able to keep their people safe and had the supports they needed to be able to limit the spread of COVID-19. Long-standing social and economic inequities meant that indigenous communities would be more vulnerable and could be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Indigenous communities rapidly went to work to protect their people, especially their elders. They updated their pandemic plans and they executed them with truly impressive results. Indigenous leaders, as Minister Miller said, have demonstrated their incredible resilience, innovation and leadership. During the first wave, as we've heard, the first nation communities reported a COVID case rate that was about a third of the Canadian rate. As we face the realities of the second wave and increasing infection rates in indigenous populations, we will continue to work with indigenous partners to ensure they have the resources and the support they need.
I particularly remember the call with Dene National Chief Norm Yakeleya, who championed and created traditional on-the-land initiatives to keep his community safe. The program supported many families who would not otherwise be able to be on the land because of the financial burden of acquiring the necessary provisions. Other communities needed support to increase the security measures to enforce their bylaws and be able to protect their communities from the risk of outsiders.
Effective leadership, collaboration and coordination is how we have been approaching this pandemic with indigenous partners and how we are committed to moving forward.
My department has had the responsibility of responding to the needs of the modern treaty and self-governing nations. Part of this collaboration with modern treaty and self-governing nations is through the indigenous community support fund. Our department was able to contribute $20 million in March to support the pandemic priorities in these nations, and we've since added an additional $10 million in August to make sure they have the resources to keep their people safe as we go into the second wave.
Our government also responded to the devastating economic impacts that COVID-19 has had on indigenous businesses and communities through Minister Miller's department, Indigenous Services Canada, and through the other government departments. Our department also collaborates with the First Nations Financial Management Board, the First Nations Tax Commission, and the First Nations Finance Authority on additional measures to support indigenous businesses and communities.
We committed $17.1 million to provide interest payment relief for first nations with loans through the First Nations Finance Authority and will continue to work in close partnership with these institutions on their specific proposals and with a broad range of indigenous organizations to ensure that we can build back better—environmentally, economically and socially—together.
It was also important for leadership that they wanted to make sure their members understood how to access supports like the Canada emergency response benefit, the emergency wage subsidy, the employment insurance system and the Canada recovery benefit.
In closing, I can assure you that the top priority of our government during this difficult time remains the safety and the physical and mental health of all Canadians, including first nations, Inuit, Métis and their communities.
I look forward to your questions.
Meegwetch. Marsi. Nakurmiik.
Kwe. Tawnshi. Greetings.
I want to begin by acknowledging that I am speaking to you from my office in Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, Treaty 1 territory, the traditional territory of the Anishinabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, Dene and of course the homeland of the Métis nation, and a city that is now home to many Inuit.
Mr. Chair, I’m pleased to appear before this committee today with my colleagues, to give an update on the situation of the second wave of COVID-19 in the north and to contextualize what the Government of Canada is doing to assist indigenous communities and all northerners during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have been in regular contact with territorial premiers and first nation, Inuit and Métis partners across the north. With the resurgence of COVID-19 we've seen in recent weeks, we are continuing to work with all partners to ensure the health and safety of all northerners, including taking necessary measures to respond to COVID-19.
The number of cases of COVID-19 in the north has been very limited, and that's not by accident. I commend the leadership and the hard work of the territorial governments and the indigenous leaders, who are keeping their communities safe during this pandemic.
We recognize that remote, isolated and northern communities have unique needs, and we continue to work in collaboration with territorial governments to respond to and prevent COVID-19.
In April, we provided the territories with more than $130 million of funding to address the immediate health, economic and transportation priorities related to the pandemic. From access to health services and supporting businesses and individuals to the continuation of the supply chains through air support and greater subsidies on essential items, we are taking actions to help northerners when they need it the most.
Earlier this summer, our government announced new measures to support essential air access to remote communities through bilateral agreements to ensure continuity of service for at least six months. This included establishing a $75-million funding program for our federal contribution for the first six months, which takes us to the end of the year, and maintaining these essential air services through an investment of up to $174 million over 18 months, if needed. We sincerely hope it's not needed. I commend for his leadership on this initiative.
We also recognize the increased costs of many essential goods in the north and the increased financial pressures that many families are facing. That's why we provided an additional investment of $25 million to nutrition north Canada to increase the federal subsidy rate for essential items like food and personal hygiene products. We also expanded the subsidy list for all 116 northern communities eligible for nutrition north Canada, which also included cleaning products for personal hygiene that are necessary to keep people safe.
We also implemented the harvesters support grant, co-developed with indigenous partners, which helps with the high cost of traditional hunting and harvesting and helps to provide more traditional country food. We are also providing funding to community-led programs through food banks, breakfast clubs and the surplus food program. We recognize that the pandemic has had an impact on food security for families, and we are taking measures to support them.
We know that this pandemic has disproportionally affected some Canadians, and that's why we've rolled out a comprehensive support measure so that every Canadian gets the support they need. This includes enhancements to the Canada child benefit, direct financial support payments and investments to community organizations and mental health services.
For workers, we introduced the Canada emergency response benefit, which provided temporary financial support for Canadians who stopped working because of COVID. For businesses, we provided $15 million in emergency funding through CanNor to meet their challenges, as well as an additional $34 million dedicated through the regional relief and recovery fund, through CanNor, assisting businesses across all industries in the north, including the medical, hospitality and national resource industry. So far, these investments have helped to support more than 450 businesses across the north.
We also recognize the need to increase access to high-speed broadband in rural and remote communities. We are committed to accelerating the connectivity timelines and ambitions of the universal broadband fund.
We know this is a difficult time. We will continue to support Canadians who need help during this pandemic.
Meegwetch. Marsi. Nakurmiik.
I'll have to learn how to say “You're welcome” in all of those. Thank you very much for your presentation.
As we go now to a round of questioning, normally there's a much lengthier preamble, but I think everyone here has been on Zoom meetings before, so you know about microphones and gallery views. I would just point out to the questioners to perhaps direct the questions to specific individuals to maximize their use of time. Also, you should be aware of the “raise hand” function, which is found at the bottom of the screen, under “participants”. I'll keep an eye on that, should another witness wish to weigh in on a topic.
As it stands now, we're going to go to the first round of questioning, which is for six minutes. For my first round I have—and I hope this is correct—Vidal, Battiste, Bérubé, and Blaney.
Gary Vidal, you have six minutes to start. Please go ahead.
I just want to take a moment to quickly thank all of the ministers and officials for taking time to be at our committee tonight. We know you're very busy people at this time. We do appreciate your time.
I want to address a few questions to Minister Miller, to begin with.
Minister, I want to talk about the boil water advisory issue for a few minutes. I think you're well aware, and I would acknowledge, that this is a long-standing issue. It's not necessarily a partisan issue. All Canadians agree that this is unacceptable and that we need to find solutions. Canadians are also frustrated when they keep hearing about how the relationship with indigenous people is the most important relationship to the and your government, but at the same time targets are being walked back and goals are not being met.
It appears to me that we're witnessing a crisis management approach from your department on this issue. I think that's frustrating for Canadians. What we need is a truly proactive and collaborative strategy.
My question is actually quite simple. What are the steps that you, as the minister, are taking to bring a more proactive strategy to end this issue for indigenous Canadians?
Thank you, MP Vidal, for that critical question, which indeed is key for all Canadians and indigenous peoples living in Canada. It is no surprise to anyone—in particular the issue I mentioned in Neskantaga, which has been an entirely unacceptable situation for 25 years—that this is the result of massive undercapitalization of, specifically, indigenous communities, specifically with respect to resources that, in most communities in Canada, we all take for granted. Indeed, if those were removed from us, we would be crying bloody murder.
It is unacceptable that indigenous communities have been in this situation, yet that has been the case, and we must acknowledge it as a country. The shame lies in not doing anything about it.
From the very get-go, and as we traced the arc of the commitment that was made by the as early as the prior election, we realized quite early that the commitment needed to be doubled, in terms of the number of long-term water advisories that we were covering. This posed, obviously, a logistical problem. It's something in which we invested additional sums. We put billions of dollars into that commitment. My officials—and it's too bad I don't have the water team here—have been working relentlessly to address this in a systematic fashion.
Being the former mayor of Meadow Lake, you would appreciate the challenges with water, water infrastructure and wastewater. For every community these are complex issues. Some we have been able to resolve quickly. Indeed, over the course of our commitment, we've lifted 90 long-term water advisories and prevented a far greater number of short-term water advisories from becoming long-term water advisories. It's important to realize that.
Now, you take the unacceptable trajectory—
That's an excellent question.
The reason I raised the alarm with respect to the number of active cases is that we have seen a resurgence in indigenous communities, and it's following in lockstep with the second wave that's happening all over Canada. What we have seen is a drop in vigilance. It's understandable, as economies open up and as we take a more surgical approach to how we deal with COVID. We've learned about how this virus acts and reacts, but we don't know everything yet.
What we do know is that when we trust indigenous communities, trust in their decision-making and accompany them every step of the way, the things they do.... The indigenous communities take pandemics very seriously. They've been through many of them, with fewer advantages than we all take for granted in non-indigenous communities. That has worked. There is basic “shutting down” of communities, taking the public health authority, lifting up the doctors and nurses in the community and letting them dictate public policy, which is so key—as we've done at the federal level—to making sure people comply. It's showing leadership.
Across the board, this has shown incredible results, including in nations with alarming spread at the onset, where communities have stepped up. Basic hygiene messages have been enforced and reinforced, as well as testing, tracking and isolating, even in conditions that would be unacceptable in non-indigenous communities, in situations of overcrowding, which we all know well as a committee, including in jurisdictional challenges like La Loche.
We do know, however, that we have seen alarming spread where people let their guard down, at emotional events like weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies. The key here is not to judge, to ensure we are getting all the information we can, to work in lockstep with communities and make sure that crucial aspect of tracking and isolating is done without judgment and effectively, so as to isolate, separate and eventually completely stamp out COVID. This works. It is proven to work, and indigenous communities have shown the way. That leadership is incredible and key in ensuring that this has been stamped out. It causes a lot of fear and apprehension.
Also, as I mentioned in the French portion of my remarks, the hidden face of this pandemic is the mental health crisis, the worst iterations of which are the opioid use and abuse, suicide and ideation. These are all big challenges we will face going forward, and indeed we won't know the effects for some time to come. It's why we will keep mobilizing targeted envelopes and trusting communities to do what they know best to protect their people.
I'm sorry, Madam Chair.
That is a very good question. In April, we announced at least $130 million for the north and the territories. That included $17 million for air services. We knew it was a good start, but we knew it wasn't enough. So, together with Minister Garneau's office, we announced an additional $75 million to support the air industry through the end of this year. This includes all airlines serving northern Ontario, northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan. I believe it includes northern Quebec as well, but I'm not sure.
At the end of the year, we will do an assessment, and if necessary, we will make an additional $75 million available for the next six months. That will take us to the end of June. Again, at that time, we will do an assessment to see where we are on COVID-19, and I believe there will be additional funding for another six months if it is needed.
This initiative is sponsored by Minister Garneau. I am working closely with him. It's very important because it allows us to ensure that supply chains are not broken and that people have access to medicine and food. If there is a disruption in the supply chains, we know it will be difficult to restore them. So we are working closely with industry, communities, provinces and territories.
I want to thank all the ministers and staff who are here with us today to answer these very important questions.
One of the chiefs in my riding recently said to me, “It is only our communities that are having incremental justice, a little bit at a time, a spoon at a time, but never the full meal that we need to step ahead.” I want to start with that and say that I think in the history of this country this has been the story of our country, and it continues to be the story of our country today: incremental justice and incremental human rights.
My first question is about housing. We know that a lot of northern and indigenous communities have housing conditions that are atrocious and there is overcrowding. This of course was an issue long before the pandemic became an issue, but now that we've added the pandemic to this, we know that people are in situations where they cannot self-isolate if they come down with COVID-19 symptoms or are exposed to someone who has tested positive.
The government's response was tents and some other temporary structures. I see some action that has happened, but I'm just wondering, when are these communities going to finally see the necessary investments for a permanent housing solution?
Thank you, MP Blaney, for the question.
We know that those infrastructure gaps, particularly in respect of housing, are unacceptable and were part of the reason for and the driver of communities being in a lesser position for poorer health outcomes with respect to COVID. We know, particularly in Inuit communities, how close and unacceptable housing conditions are a vector of tuberculosis, for example. This is, as you mentioned, absolutely nothing new.
Clearly, as we looked at what was in front of us as we faced a historic pandemic, it was that fact. I note that you mentioned tents. I would insert a word of caution there because these are highly specialized movable structures that are intended to isolate. They are used in some cases for testing. They are adaptable for the winter up to -40°C. They have been a critical resource for some communities in terms of their COVID response, along with the repurposing that we've done of certain buildings in response to their pandemic plan needs.
Now, I do agree with you that these are unacceptable conditions that first nations, Inuit and, for that matter, Métis communities face. This has been laid bare by COVID once again. That is why the Governor General mentioned as much in the throne speech in 2020, which was focused on the inequities that were laid bare by the COVID pandemic.
We are in a response-to-COVID mode, so clearly the safety of people and communities and their priorities need to be met. I am fully aware of this. We have an undertaking in government to close that gap by 2030. The question that I think we all need to pose to ourselves is, should we be doing that much more quickly? I would answer that, for my own purposes, in the affirmative.
Thank you for that. Again, I'll just mention that timeline in incremental justice.
My next question is for Minister Miller and Minister Bennett. I've had two serious outbreaks in my riding in indigenous communities, one in Tla'amin, which is treaty, and one in 'Namgis, which is non-treaty. I want to do a big recognition of the amazing work of former hegus Clint Williams and Chief Don Svanvik, who work so hard in their communities to address those issues, and I want of course to recognize that we did lose one elder.
I'm just wondering, from your perspective, what were the lessons learned from those communities? Also, how are we going to move forward in addressing this when those types of communities across Canada are hit, knowing that one is treaty and one is non-treaty?
Thanks very much for that round of questions.
Now to reset, we were about nine minutes late with the audio-technical issues. I'm going to ask the witnesses if they're able to stay so that we can complete the second round of questioning, which should take 25 minutes. Is there any problem with ministers Bennett, Vandal and Miller continuing on with the questioning? I know that our time schedule said 7:30, but we were unfortunately late getting started due to technical reasons.
Can we press on with the second round? Okay, good.
In the second round of questioning, I have five minutes with the Conservative and Liberal members; two-and-a-half-minute questions with the Bloc and the NDP; and five minutes with the Conservatives and Liberals.
My list is Melillo, Zann, Bérubé, Blaney, McLeod and van Koeverden.
Eric, would you like to start now for five minutes?
Thank you, MP Melillo. That's an excellent question.
When I talk to the MPs from the north—Bagnell, McLeod and Qaqqaq—it's often mentioned that tourism is something that has really taken a hit in the north. That's a natural by-product of keeping borders closed. Especially, the big operators who go on the excursions to remote areas have been hit very hard.
I know that through CanNor, which is in 's portfolio, we've provided $15 million for emergency funding to meet their regional challenges, as well as an additional $34 million through the RRRF, the regional relief and recovery fund, to help businesses of all industries across the north, including the medical, hospitality and natural resource industries. I know that in spite of this, the tourism industry is in deep distress. Consultations and discussions are ongoing—
I really appreciate hearing that, Minister. I think it's so important. In my discussions with Mi'kmaq people here, we are all very keen to see that happen. We believe it is the right way to go.
Here in Nova Scotia and throughout the Atlantic, I believe the first nations have proven time and time again the power of partnership through initiatives. I'm thinking about the Atlantic first nations health partnership, for instance. I am very encouraged by the strong first nation engagement in this co-management structure that's enabling them to improve their community's health.
One issue that I do find keeps coming up, though, is mental health and people who are struggling with mental health. Of course, this will also involve things like addiction, but it also involves depression, anxiety, suicide, cutting and these kinds of things. I keep hearing from a number of people in my community that when they go to the hospital, sometimes they're just sent home, no matter how many times they cry out for help. One young man was sent home with some sleeping pills a couple of years ago. He committed suicide. He hung himself. It was so sad. He was a first nations firefighter. He was also a champion kickboxer.
What can we do to help, and what are we doing to help, with mental health issues and supports for indigenous peoples across Canada?
Who would like to answer that?
I would say that, when it comes to British Columbia, this work is done principally through FNHA, but as for the general question, we have been moving in real time in terms of our stockpile to a turnaround time of 24 hours. Now FNIHB and the resources that we have at our disposal serve essentially the health care and the essential service community inside indigenous communities. Our response time has improved to a 24-hour turnaround.
Clearly at the beginning, we saw some confusion across Canada with respect to how, when and where PPE was being used and deployed, and conversations as to need. Obviously, the clear message to us that we had to take action on was that we had to increase our communication with communities to see, first and foremost, what the protocol was for PPE. Very simple things become quite complex and intricate, particularly in a northern remote scenario, like donning and doffing, which has become a commonplace expression now. There was also proper use of PPE and how and when it's used in conjunction with testing.
I would leave the remaining portion of this question to Dr. Gideon.
Could you just add a bit, Val?
Thank you to the ministers for joining us today. Thank you to a couple of people who subbed in as well for this extraordinarily late meeting this evening. I'm grateful to say that I am joining you from the sacred territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and I'm grateful, again, to be re-engaging in this important work.
My question is regarding friendship centres and how we are caring for indigenous people in urban and suburban settings. I know that my colleague and friend MP Pam Damoff has recently engaged with a local group in Halton to discuss this. There are implications for COVID, and beyond COVID, I think, but the more services we can provide to indigenous people in urban and suburban settings, the better.
I suppose that's a question for Minister Miller, and potentially Minister Bennett, but I'd love to hear about the progress.
Thank you so much for that important question, because it is a testament to the challenges we faced and the strict policy and legal authorities we all faced within our departments and how we've all had to think a bit outside the box in order to address where the vulnerabilities are expressing themselves, and that includes the 50% or more indigenous population that lives “off reserve”. More often, the typical iteration of that is large urban centres like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, but it is also the reality in places like La Loche, where we saw one of the largest outbreaks. This is something that's near and dear to MP Vidal's heart, because I know of his engagement in ensuring that proper resources were deployed in those communities.
We have acknowledged that challenge, because those vulnerabilities exist, but when you're talking about intricate overlapping jurisdictions, obviously there's an execution challenge in the delivery of health care, which is primarily and exclusively, in those cases, the jurisdiction of the provincial or territorial governments. This has been a challenge within the strict authorities of the funds that we appropriated.
We knew from the very beginning that $15 million dedicated to “urban supports” was wildly insufficient, which is why we procured $75 million to distribute across a wide network of organizations and grassroots-based organizations that are really doing some of the key work in keeping people safe, whether that's food security, cultural supports, or keeping doors open. I think of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, which is doing incredible work in keeping people safe, alive and well surrounded during this pandemic. I look at some of the mobile supports in downtown Toronto, which I think Pam was instrumental in announcing and pushing for. This is the result of advocacy across parties. There isn't a single party that didn't approach me to say, you have to do more for indigenous communities that are in urban settings. It has yielded results in areas that I mentioned previously, in supporting harm reduction models in various forms, whether it's a wet shelter or other supports for people who are perhaps not getting a safe supply, or the food security I mentioned earlier.
These are all elements where we see what I call a “jurisdictional hole”, where the federal government has not been present, and provincial and territorial supports, for whatever reason, have not been there. COVID doesn't check the Constitution before it infects someone, and where we've seen it, it goes after those who are most vulnerable. The indigenous communities that came together, the Métis, Dene.... La Loche is an incredible example of a very alarming spread at the outset of COVID, where 200 people were infected in a community that has had its challenges, but they rallied together with an emergency response team. We supported it with financial supports, and they were able to stamp it out, and that's amazing work.
In part, it is the federal government's response to a very tricky jurisdictional question where we could not close our eyes to it, but also because of the advocacy of voices that go across party lines. I think we need to keep going together in lockstep on this issue, because we're not out of the woods on COVID specifically, and there are needs that are, we must acknowledge, unmet, and we are not meeting them currently, whether we look at ourselves or at the provincial governments.
Thank you, Adam, in particular, for your advocacy, because I know how you've interacted with our.... This isn't a throwaway thank you; this is a real thank you and I mean it, in every single thing you do, because I know you've been passionate about this.
Yes, I am in Ottawa today. I'm trying this out in person. I thought I'd keep the clerk company, although we are still sitting far apart from each other.
Minister Miller is responsible for the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. The good work of people like Travis Gladue-Beauregard and Charmaine Stick is not going unnoticed. I just want to thank the minister and his department for their forensic audit that's taking place on the Saddle Lake first nation. I know that many members have been working hard to get that to happen, and I want to thank the minister for that.
People like Denise from my riding are continually concerned about where the funds are being spent and where the special COVID funding that's coming to their particular band is going. They're also concerned about the fact that they may live off reserve, and how does that...? They complain to me that their head is counted when the band approaches the government for funding, and yet when they approach the band for services, they are deemed to be aliens to the band. Services are not provided.
That is an ongoing concern. That is something that we as Canadians have to work on. The Indian Act is something that we are concerned about. All of us are working to repeal the Indian Act. One of those things has been for the government to divide the department into two. I'm glad to see that the division seems to be under way now, even though, when I was looking for the Financial Transparency Act, it still says “northern and indigenous services” on the Internet. I'm not exactly sure when that will be fixed. We're hoping it will be fixed soon.
I'm not exactly sure.... I know that it's Minister Miller's department that's responsible for that. I'm just wondering how it's going with the enforcement of the Financial Transparency Act.
I'll start, and then I'll turn it over to Dr. Wong.
Obviously, we are paying very close attention to what's happening with the rise in cases. I think that the nimbleness and the outreach that was done at the early onset of COVID and the constant communications with communities put us in a good position to be able to respond, to be nimble as a department and really think about the unique and innovative ways we can help communities. I think that, obviously, the Atlantic bubble has contained the case count to a certain extent. We are seeing numbers rise, as you noted—
The Chair: Could I ask you to just lower your mike a little bit? There is a bit of raspiness to it.
Ms. Christiane Fox: Is that better? Okay, thank you.
I'll turn it over to Dr. Wong to talk a little more about the state of affairs in Atlantic Canada.
Thank you so much, Deputy.
Yes, indeed. When we looked at the Atlantic bubble, the ability of the communities to maintain physical distancing, avoid crowds, wear non-medical masks when distancing was not possible, practise hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene, and stay home when they are sick, all of those things are examples of what Atlantic first nations communities are able to do.
When we look at some of the recent examples, both in non-indigenous and indigenous communities—first nations, Métis and Inuit—we see that when some individuals let their guards down and participate in gatherings of 300 people, rallies for example, without wearing masks and with no physical distancing, that's when you get those viruses, unfortunately.
Thank you again for being with us this evening.
One of the questions I have is this. You know, a large part of the response for indigenous people living off reserve, or further from their communities, is to rely on urban indigenous organizations to deliver services. Most of the time, of course, those are friendship centres across Canada, but there are some other organizations. There are communities in my riding, and in other areas across the country, where there isn't any kind of infrastructure for that.
What solutions have you created to really focus on serving those indigenous communities that are off reserve, where there isn't really infrastructure in the community to get those culturally appropriate services?
That question is for whoever is the appropriate person to answer it, please.
Yes, you are correct. In the first wave, we discovered that there were a number of organizations and communities that didn't have that friendship centre sort of support, but through the different waves, and all the proposals that came in, we discovered that there were other organizations in those areas, in some cases hamlets, municipalities and your not-so-traditional friendship centre organization. We had new partners that we had never funded before, and it was a very exciting time for us to get to meet some of these service delivery agents that we didn't even know existed. There's quite a web of them working under the radar.
The other thing we witnessed was that some of them actually partnered with friendship centres through this. We saw this particularly in Atlantic Canada, where there were cases of smaller communities that would link up with the friendship centres virtually and get advice on how to service their members. They were receiving funds from us but working in partnership with other organizations, and we were definitely encouraging and supporting that dialogue.