Alberta’s minister of Indigenous relations said Saturday that his ministry has essentially moved into a type of triage position as it works to communicate with First Nations communities around the province to guide them through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a role for me and my ministry and my staff to be sure that the right information is flowing in the right direction,” said Minister Rick Wilson during a news conference.
Wilson said that while there have been no reports of any COVID-19 cases on First Nation reserves across the province, the government wants to ensure that the right protective measures are being taken and all communities are aware of government supports.
“A lot of First Nations people are living in poverty,” said Wilson. “So you have several families living under one roof.
“So if does get into a situation like that, it can spread rapidly.”
He said that his ministry is co-ordinating with Indigenous Services Canada, Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and other provincial ministries to support the reserves.
“I’ve been in constant contact with Indigenous leaders throughout the province and connect them with resources they need to keep their members safe,” said Wilson.
He added that most chiefs in the province have his personal cell number, but any residents or leaders on reserves who don’t have that number should call his office or the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
Indigenous people who live off-reserve in urban centres will be supported by the responses in those communities, said Wilson.
Chief Billy Morin of the Enoch Cree Nation said that the situation is especially hard for people on reserves because the communities function as one big family.
“Everybody knows everybody,” he said. “People are really hurting right now to not be able to walk over to their grandma or grandpa’s house.”
He added that many communities are working to stop the spread. Morin said Enoch Cree Nation will be setting up checkpoints at all road entrances to the community starting as soon as this weekend.
“ to do our part not to have a spread on the Nations, and if a member has to leave, it’s doing our part not to have that spread off the Nation to the broader public as well.”
However, Morin said that the communities are hoping for some type of housing support from either the federal or provincial government.
“We have overcrowding on reserves when it comes to homes. Again, that’s such a bad situation to be in when it comes to self-isolation,” he said.
The province has committed $30 million in funding for homeless shelters around the province, including 21 locations of the Alberta Native Friendship Centres Association.
The federal Liberals also committed $305 million to First Nations supports in an announcement earlier this week, although how it will be distributed has yet to be outlined, said Morin.
“The rough formula we’ve been told is that it’ll be a lot of population-based,” said Morin. “I believe there’s a factor in there for remote communities.”
Other First Nations in the province have also put emergency plans into place, with the Siksika First Nation launching a mobile COVID-19 response unit earlier this week. The unit will not only test for the virus but will also deliver food to the vulnerable.
Food supply concerns
Wilson said a concern he’s heard repeatedly from First Nation leaders is maintaining the food supply, especially when it comes to remote communities.
“A lot of these First Nations are quite remote,” he said. “The food supplies are coming. The problem is some people were hoarding at first.”
He added that all Albertans should “think about their neighbours” and take only what they need when shopping.
“A lot of the First Nations, they’re encouraging their people not to leave, to stay right on reserve. We have to make sure we’re able to get that food out to them,” he said.
Wilson said that his ministry is also working with the ministry of agriculture to ensure the food supply to remote communities continues and is working with leaders to ensure water supplies are clean and potable throughout the crisis.
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