September marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University, is the last in our series of interview transcripts. You can read the full series here. This transcript has been edited for clarity. 


First Policy Response: What are some of the particular challenges facing Indigenous communities in Canada when it comes to COVID-19?

Hayden King: At the outset of the shutdown and the pandemic, with the awareness that this was a public health emergency, I think that communities were initially very quick to respond. I think that communities by and large had emergency response teams established, they had pandemic preparation and response plans. We saw, originally, daily and then weekly updates for band members on reserve, in communities. And then there were some more innovative solutions when we’re talking about remote communities – and I think about my own community, which is an island community. Those communities ended up coming together and gathering the resources that they had to make sure that everybody had food security. Obviously there’s this enormous challenge to deal with, but I think I would preface everything by saying how remarkable it was that a lot of communities ended up actually engaging and preparing and dealing with the pandemic. And I think to a really a large degree, that’s why we saw very few cases in communities at the outset.

But as the pandemic went on, I think there were some governance challenges that really started to speak to more structural issues in Indigenous policy and law. I think one of those was around governance and elections. As it happens, many communities, particularly in Ontario, were about to go and vote for new Indian Act chief and council elections. And so there was a lot of confusion initially. Communities were saying, “We can’t have an election in the middle of the pandemic.” And then community people were saying, “Well, we want to hold you accountable. We want a new chief and council.” And the Department of [Indigenous Services] . . . ultimately was left with this question of what to do. And they really fumbled the response. Initially they said, “Go ahead and have your elections. Everything will be fine.” And obviously people were uncomfortable with that – this was the height of the pandemic. And then they said, “You can have a six-month delay to the election.” And there were all these questions about, “Well, what if a community already called the election? Are people able to go back to work after they they’ve declared nominations?” All these complications that are really specific to Indian Act governance started to emerge, and it really demonstrated, I think, how inflexible and rigid Indian Act governance is. The department of [Indigenous Services] didn’t have any answers. Communities were scrambling to figure it out. At the end of the day, the department positioned itself as the arbiter of when you can have an election, and when you can’t have an election, and by what process you can have an election. And I think we’re coming up on that six-month mark and there’s still a lot of confusion around that.

So on the one hand you had communities that were really proactive and really responsive to the pandemic as a public health crisis, but then as a governance crisis, there was a lot of confusion, and the Indian Act became activated as this barrier to addressing governance in communities during the pandemic.

“The community didn’t have any mechanism to say, ‘Stay out, we’re shutting down just like everywhere else.’

Then a second area of governance challenges was around communities prohibiting visitors from entering. I’ll focus on Ontario just because that has been my focus over the last few months. There are communities like Six Nations or Alderville that non-native people frequent for shopping purposes, I guess I’ll say. And when the community said it was time to shut down, it was really difficult for non-native people to stop going to the reserve. They continued to go. And then on the other side of the country in coastal British Columbia, for instance, you had communities where yachtsmen and boaters, fishermen, wanted to come into coastal waters, visit the community. And again, you had this challenge where the community didn’t have any mechanism to say, “Stay out, we’re shutting down just like everywhere else. You need to respect that.” And I think there was a little bit of debate in the beginning – how do we enforce this? But ultimately, communities like Six Nations put up concrete barriers at every road entering into their community. Communities like mine, island communities, shut down the ferry to non-native people. So ultimately, communities again took things into their own hands, but there was this policy question around who has the authority to shut down reserves? And by what mechanism do you do that in a public health crisis? And so those were, I think, the two big challenges that emerged.

And I suppose there are other things to discuss here, like around food security and having nurses available, and should there be an outbreak, having the resources to deal with it. There were some communities that were petitioning the federal government to erect medical tents in case there were outbreaks, and there was one community that asked if the doctors from Cuba could come into their community in the case of an outbreak; that was a request that was denied by Chrystia Freeland at the time. So, that’s the third challenge that I would add to list of challenges at the outset.

I’ve sort of alluded to the fact that communities did find ways to address these issues on their own. And that’s been effective for awhile, but now we have the situation where we had a lull over the summer and now cases are beginning to increase. So now we have a case in Bella Bella, we have a couple cases in Squamish territory, cases are on the rise in a number of other First Nation communities. And this is the fear. The fear is that once a virus did get into communities, we’d be in a lot of trouble. So I think the relaxation period over the summer has unfortunately led to an increase in cases.

One more challenge that has been ongoing throughout this entire pandemic is around data. We don’t actually know how many cases are in communities because the Department of Indigenous Services, they release a daily list. Courtney Skye, a Yellowhead research fellow, did a community-based research project to figure out how many cases were actually in communities. And in some cases, province by province, it was three or four times the rate that the Department of Indigenous Services was reporting. It’s difficult to actually know where the cases are, how many cases there are. And without that accurate information, it’s really difficult to plan and prepare and respond to the pandemic.

There’s one more challenge around privacy. This is related to data. [Ontario Regional Chief] RoseAnne Archibald of the Chiefs of Ontario and Judith Sayers of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council have spoken a little bit, at least to Yellowhead, about how it’s very difficult to get the provinces to disclose where the cases are so that those communities can prepare. Because the word is that there’s cases in the neighbouring non-native community, but there’s a lack of clarity on that for communities to actually address that.


FPR: What about broadband access, as we’ve had a shift to remote school and work?

That’s sort a perpetual problem. Internet connectivity in a lot of communities is very weak. And we’re not just talking about Northern and remote communities, you know, we’re not talking about the far north of Ontario or Iqaluit, which have poor internet at the best of days, but communities south of the 401 have limited stable internet connectivity. And this is a perpetual problem. I would like to see some proactive response right now, because the provincial government is speaking to rural counties – like the county that I’m in right now, Northumberland County – about how a solution to the pandemic for economic recovery is increasing access to the internet and the digital main street, etc., etc. And that’s great. That’s wonderful for people like me who live rurally and have bad internet, but that conversation isn’t happening to the same degree for First Nation communities. Now is a perfect opportunity to increase broadband and internet infrastructure, but to date I haven’t been I haven’t heard about those discussions.


FPR: I wanted to ask you about education as well, because that is another perpetual challenge. What is the situation with getting students back in school?

As I sort of began at the outset of this conversation, communities, because of the previous legacies of infectious diseases, have been overly cautious with COVID-19. And so when the province of Ontario, for instance, decided, “OK, it’s time for school to go back,” there were a number of communities that decided that they were not going to send their students back. Six Nations is a good example of a large community with multiple primary elementary schools that has decided to delay the reopening of schools. There’s this jurisdictional wrestling match, basically, between the province, the federal government and First Nations each thinking it has the best interests of communities and students in mind, and each proposing generally divergent policy solutions for things like education. And I think we’re seeing that to some degree right now.

In terms of additional support, that hasn’t materialized at the provincial level. At the federal level, there have been ad hoc funding announcements – in some cases, quite large funding announcements. One big challenge with that is that there’s not a lot of transparency over the rationale for the allocation of the funding, sustainability of the funding. It’s sort of just like, “Here’s some cash, we’ll figure the rest out later.” And in some ways it’s sort of ironic, because First Nations have been saying, “That’s great. We’ll take it and do with it what we please.” But in other ways, the disorganized nature of it, I think, creates a lot of uncertainty for communities. No doubt some are directing it to education, but speaking of data, there’s just no clear indication of what communities are spending the resources on right now.


FPR: Are there any other policy interventions that you’ve seen so far that have been more useful or less useful, from either level of government?

There’s been a disturbing trend – even as early as June, Alberta and Ontario were still green-lighting large-scale infrastructure projects and suspending environmental regulation of those projects. Both Alberta and Ontario basically said these projects must go ahead. And some of the first restrictions to ease were on resource extraction. So while they were allowed to proceed, and workers were able to go back to camps, the monitoring of their work was restricted in both provinces. And interestingly, we saw outbreaks in both provinces, as well as in Saskatchewan, in remote worker camps, which then spread to other communities. So there’s this sort of hypocrisy at play, that somehow it’s safe for large numbers of people to gather in close spaces as long as it’s for resource extraction, and yet it’s unsafe for the environmental monitoring that would ordinarily accompany it and require just a handful of individuals, not congregating in large spaces, to carry out. I think that there’s an agenda at work there that requires some more scrutiny.

And I think that intersects with Indigenous policy because we have these legal principles in Canada, like the duty to consult, like free, prior and informed consent – which, while not recognized by the federal government or provinces, is attempted to be enforced by First Nation communities. So what happens to the duty to consult? What happens to consultation? What happens to consent during the pandemic when industrial or resource extraction is allowed to proceed with little to no regulation? I think that’s been an under-the-radar development that is actually a big story of the pandemic that should probably be scrutinized.


“The federal government has had six months to sort out public health on reserves and I’m not sure that’s been done.”

FPR: As we’re moving out of the initial phase of the pandemic and into the longer-term recovery, where do you think our priorities should be in developing policy to address these challenges?

I think public health is the primary one. If this so-called second wave arrives – and it looks like it’s on the horizon if Ontario and Quebec are any indication – the federal government has had six months to sort out public health on reserves, to figure out how to get the adequate health-care staff, capacity, services, supplies, resources to communities, and I’m not sure that’s been done. And so more work on pandemic preparedness and figuring out the relationship between Health Canada, the First Nations and the Department of Indigenous Services Canada is really where the priority should be. Because we know if the virus gets into communities, it will have devastating consequences.


FPR: Before you go on, can you speak a little bit more about why that is?

Well, the people that are most affected by this virus are generally people that live in overcrowded homes, lower-income folks, people with complicating health factors such as other chronic diseases – that’s true generally across the board. If you look at the demographic analysis of where COVID is hitting people in Toronto, it’s in low-income, racialized communities. So for Indigenous people – who generally live in overcrowded homes, with higher rates of chronic and infectious diseases already, often in poverty – that is just a recipe for some serious harm from this virus and disease.

But then in addition to that, we know that First Nations, and Inuit in particular, are more susceptible to the harms of infectious disease. And we can look at H1N1, we can look at the Spanish flu – some communities lost a third or half of their population due to the Spanish flu.

And of course we can look at tuberculosis and many other examples throughout the 19th century.

And without adequate [medical] training, staff, medicine. . . . Many people have spoken about the lack of clean water. How do you wash your hands? Many people have spoken about the inability to physically distance. It’s interesting because what some Dene communities did, families just went out on the land and were by themselves for four months on the land. And that’s an effective strategy, but that requires resources, that requires snowmobiles, that requires gas, that requires ammunition, and sometimes those are in short supply as well.


FPR: Was there anything else that you were going to say in terms of policy priorities?

Yeah, I think public health is one. And then governance is another. It’s really difficult to do this sort of large-scale, consultative work in the middle of a pandemic, but as I mentioned earlier, we have this governance crisis in communities where the Indian Act really showed how cumbersome it was, in terms of the inflexibility around elections. And so, whenever this pandemic ends, or even in the midst of it, I think that communities should really be working towards figuring out their governance structures, independent of the Department of Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous relations. And to some degree, that is going on, but in other cases, it’s slow to start. And the federal government did attempt to push communities in this direction with the Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework, but that was bad legislation that we at Yellowhead critiqued. So support or input from the federal government on a move away from Indian Act governance and towards something that’s a little bit more expansive in terms of self-determination would be another priority.


“Urban Indigenous people were really left out of any discussions on pandemic preparedness and response.”

FPR: So far we’ve talked about Indigenous communities. Are there additional or different challenges for Indigenous people living off-reserve?

Over 50 per cent of Indigenous people live in cities, and when the federal government announced that there was going to be support for on-reserve folks, the urban Indigenous people were saying, “That’s great, but who’s here to represent us? Who’s here to speak on our behalf?” Because national Indigenous organizations do not do a very good job of that. They focus primarily on the on-reserve folks. And so those urban people were really left out of any discussions on pandemic preparedness and response. It took a lot of lobbying from Friendship Centres and others to really try to convince the federal government to devote some resources to urban communities. . . . By and large, it’s one of the most peripheral groups in the whole discussion around COVID-19 support.


FPR: Same question – is there anything policy-wise that you would like to see done to address the needs of the urban Indigenous populations?

You know, so much of this is structural. It’s really difficult to say, “We just need a policy preparation plan for urban Indigenous people.” Like when I’m talking about the governance issues on reserves, that’s a structural thing that is going to require significant change in the relationship, and it’s not something that can be done easily with a straightforward new direction and policy. It’s the same with public health. These are broader discussions and I think if anything, the pandemic exposes the need for those conversations. And I think the same is true of urban issues, as well. Our urban Indigenous people are really left out of most of the conversations around Indigenous issues in Canada. For many years, there’s been this Urban Aboriginal Strategy, where the Conservative government actually tried to say, “OK, the federal government will pitch in 33 per cent, the province will pitch in 33 per cent, and the municipality that you live in will pitch in 33 per cent, and if everyone agrees to the project or the proposal, then you can have your funding for your urban Indigenous project.” It was a pretty sneaky way to avoid supporting urban Indigenous people because inevitably, one of those jurisdictions is going to bow out, and that means the entire project does not proceed. After the Conservatives left office, the Urban Aboriginal Strategy was tweaked a little bit, but there is really limited policy framework for addressing the needs of urban Indigenous people. . . .

It would be nice to be able to say there’s one simple, easy solution to all the challenges. I think maybe the only area where I could say that is around the land question. If you recall, right before the pandemic there was this massive Land Back movement in Canada that started with the Wet’suwet’en preventing the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline going through a part of their territory. Then that was supported by Tyendinaga Mohawks who blockaded CN Rail lines and prevented GO trains and Via trains from passing. And that was a multi-week shutdown. I think that we were really on the cusp of this national conversation around things like free, prior and informed consent. And then, of course, the pandemic hit and that obviously sapped the energy of the movement and the attention of Canadians. But the really clear and simple demand that was made off and on throughout that movement – but really since 2007 and even before that – has been for this concept of free, prior and informed consent. So, for any project that’s happening in a community’s established or asserted treaty area or title lands, the province or the federal government has got to get the permission or the consent of the community before that development proceeds.  That’s simple, that’s straightforward, there’s a clear objective, there’s a clear rationale. And that’s one that I think could be a straightforward [policy] answer, and also remedy some of the challenges that I spoke about earlier about the suspension of environmental regulation in Alberta and Ontario.


FPR: Is there anything you will be looking for in the throne speech?

I think with the first Trudeau government, the majority, there was this clear focus on Indigenous issues and reconciliation and the nation-to-nation relationship, and how it was the “most important relationship.” During the last campaign, I think it was clear that the Liberals couldn’t run on reconciliation – it didn’t work out for them. And since then there’s been this real lack of attention, like a glaring lack of attention to Indigenous issues. It’s remarkable, [the difference between] the first government and the second government. So I think we’ll really get confirmation with this throne speech on whether or not the “most important relationship” has been downgraded. We might hear a few references to reconciliation, but unless we’re hearing things like, robust support in transformation of public health on reserves, a real community-based alternative to the Indian Act to address the governance issues, concepts like free, prior and informed consent, which includes the recognition of treaty rights, all that sort of stuff, then I’m afraid that [the relationship] has been downgraded, if you will. And that will be concerning for the next few years.