September 30, 2020

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Support, empathy needed on front line of pandemic fight

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>A homeless man makes his way to warm up at Siloam Mission in Winnipeg. The main defences to slow the COVID-19 pandemic are for citizens to wash their hands, keep a “social distance” from others, and stay home, most of which are impossible for the homeless.</p>


A homeless man makes his way to warm up at Siloam Mission in Winnipeg. The main defences to slow the COVID-19 pandemic are for citizens to wash their hands, keep a “social distance” from others, and stay home, most of which are impossible for the homeless.

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Manitoba’s three main defences to slow the COVID-19 pandemic are for citizens to wash their hands, keep a "social distance" from others, and stay home.

Most of this is impossible for people who are homeless. In Manitoba, the majority are Indigenous peoples — around 70 per cent, according to End Homelessness Winnipeg.

Most of this is also impossible for people on First Nations reserves.

How do you stay home when you’re working paycheque to paycheque? How do you keep a "social distance" when there are 10 family members in your home? How do you stay home when your house is infected with mould?

COVID-19 may have started elsewhere, but the virus is going to become very Indigenous.

For many Indigenous peoples who become infected with the novel coronavirus, options are limited.

"Self-quarantining" is almost impossible, even if a home is available. If medical services are available, sterile conditions to recover in are hard to come by.

If you are sick — like many Indigenous peoples are, due to poor food and living conditions — and have diabetes, a breathing issue or are an elder, you are at risk of death.

If COVID-19 is to be stopped, all levels of authority must make Indigenous communities a priority. The past two days have seen most every poverty-fighting and Indigenous-based organization in Winnipeg respond.

Main Street Project has instituted new rules: staff are not to move freely between buildings and units, visitation is restricted, and spaces between shelter beds are increased.

The North Point Douglas Women’s Centre has cancelled ceremonies, limited use of ceremonial and public items, and handed out premade sandwiches instead of hot lunches.

The Indigenous Student Centre at the University of Manitoba cancelled next week’s 16th annual Elders and Traditional Peoples Gathering, the U of M cancelled the Manitoba First Nations Science Fair, and the University of Winnipeg announced the cancellation of next week’s graduation powwow and March 27 spring feast.

The Manitoba Metis Federation cancelled all in-person meetings, and asked all employees to cease any activities outside of its offices on 150 Henry St.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs cancelled all its events and, in a news release Friday, "encouraged" all First Nations in Manitoba to "close schools and daycares," while calling on provincial authorities to "ensure that medical supplies are available to each First Nation in Manitoba."

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network dedicated almost half of its national news show Friday to coverage of COVID-19 and became a de facto public service messenger (proving, yet again, the network’s necessity).

The fact remains: COVID-19 will impact Indigenous communities differently than other Canadians — and much of it is due to conditions wrought by the Indian Act. One-hundred-and-fifty years of mistreatment has become Canada’s biggest problem in the fight against COVID-19.

The federal government announced it was shipping isolation tents and temporary shelters to help Indigenous communities deal with any outbreaks. When asked what northern communities experiencing sub-zero temperatures would do, Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch told media the department was "looking at" heating options and "field hospitals."

The Assembly of First Nations, which has cancelled all staff travel and events, has expressed concern Ottawa is moving too slow to deal with what is sure to become Canada’s front line.

There are also new issues with the nearly $100 million in federal dollars earmarked to support Indigenous communities. Much of the money won’t go far enough to address issues in northern Inuit communities, and Métis communities can’t access the money — only First Nations can.

This also means urban, impoverished Indigenous communities are left at the mercy of provincial and civic governments who have spotty track records.

This may mean regular, everyday Manitobans will have to step up where governments will not or cannot.

For business owners, in may be an open, available downtown bathroom. For individuals, a few dollars of spare change, a pair of gloves, a bottle of drinking water.

For all of us, a few moments of empathy, support and commitment to each other as Treaty people — as family, wherever you come from — will become the front line in the fight against COVID-19.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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