OTTAWA — The Assembly of First Nations regional chief in Alberta says First Nations' capacities to respond to COVID-19's second wave are dwindling because of health, social and economic inequities.
Speaking to the House of Commons Indigenous and northern affairs committee, Marlene Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said First Nations are facing chronic housing shortages, lack of access to drinkable water and poor access to health services.
"Had more meaningful investment been made earlier to address the systemic issues and build capacity, our First Nations would not be as vulnerable as they are now," she said.
The federal government says 1,610 COVID-19 cases have been reported in First Nations communities and about 500 of those were active cases as of Monday.
Poitras said she was pleased to hear of additional federal funding announced on Friday, but more will be needed before this pandemic is over.
Ottawa committed to spending an additional $204 million targeted at child care, education and infrastructure to help Indigenous communities fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new money is on top of more than $2.2 billion the federal government has already allocated to help Indigenous and northern communities get through the health crisis.
Poitras said the unprecedented funding in the current crisis has shown that First Nations have not been a priority in the past, even though they have been living through chronic health, mental health and addiction epidemics for years.
"First Nations need to be afforded equitable opportunities to make it through the next wave of the pandemic with minimal illness, and loss of lives," she said.
David Chartrand, the vice-president of the Métis National Council, said to the committee that an equitable and sustainable economic recovery plan should incorporate commitments the Liberals made during the 2019 election campaign.
He said the government should deliver on its commitment to close the infrastructure gap and to invest in health services in First Nations communities.
Chartrand said the government has helped the Métis during the first and the second wave of COVID-19. But more investment has to be done in several areas including mental health.
"We have no nurses, we have no doctors. We have no place to go. … The province has no programs for us whatsoever, because they were federal jurisdiction," he said.
Chartrand said the government hasn't put together a recovery plan for the Métis people yet.
Poitras said First Nations should be part of the economic recovery and response plans.
"Let's not return to normal. Let's work together to provide a better way forward for First Nations, and for all Canadians," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 3, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press