As First Nations organizations across North America find their regular activities interrupted, some are taking the opportunity to improve their skill sets in new ways. One such initiative is the “virtual town hall” sessions organized by the First Nations Health Managers Association (FNHMA) that has been gaining momentum over the last two months.
Based in Ottawa, the national non-profit organization typically offers certification and professional development for Indigenous health directors. With the pandemic making it impossible to deliver their intensive training in person, in late March they began streaming weekly online events produced by the Indigenous Health Today digital platform.
“We have a unique network where we can reach health directors, professionals and frontline workers in a less technical way, making it relevant to how we practice in our nations,” explained Marion Crowe, executive director of FNHMA. “We wanted to provide a forum where there is a two-way dialogue – get the right information to the right people at the right time.”
Each Thursday at 1 pm EST, various Indigenous health experts share recent developments and advice from their respective domains before answering questions emailed from the community. With so much scattered information available, the resource provides a window into how other regions are responding to the crisis, which both nurtures a sense of connection and highlights good ideas.
“The team at FNHMA is constantly cultivating a knowledge repository of some of the best practices that we will be sharing with the broader public soon,” Crowe told the Nation. “We want health directors to be able to ask questions around mental health, addictions, non-insured transportation, some of the policy changes happening and, of course, funding questions coming from communities.”
Other concerns heard in town halls concern access to personal protective equipment, clean drinking water, and coping with loneliness and isolation.
Broadcast live on over 200 radio stations via NationTalk and streaming to audiences as high as 10,000 on numerous online platforms – including the Nation Facebook page – each edition features notable speakers. Recent guests include AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Dr. Tom Wong (executive director of Public Health, Indigenous Services Canada) and Brenda Restoule (CEO of First Peoples Wellness Circle).
A recent town hall focused on youth engagement, exploring how various groups are using social media to share empowering messages and stay connected while physically distanced. They heard from organizations like We Matter, an Indigenous-led campaign that gathers and shares positive messages nationwide to offer hope and support for struggling youth.
“I appreciated the youth who talked about being in an urban environment and not having that connection to land,” said Crowe. “How they’ve been able to walk to water, find a tree, and foster that connection they need at this time. I’m so impressed with what they are doing, how they’re mobilizing and how they’re using technology. We are in capable hands for our tomorrow.”
Crowe says the FNHMA is preparing to launch a rapid response help desk with a 1-800 number to help people navigate available support, tools and funding. They can also tap into their partnerships with organizations like the Canadian Red Cross if emergency measures are needed.
“If a call comes in from a health director in a community that doesn’t have COVID, we can be the mediator and have all that at our fingertips to share with them,” he explained. “We’ll have point persons of First Nations and Inuit Health Branch and Red Cross where we can turn over a call if it’s something we can’t handle.”
FNHMA has also worked with the AFN to revise a pandemic planning tool developed with the federal government after the H1N1 influenza crisis in 2009, making it easier to use as a resource with common language, tools and checklists. First Nations people comprised 17% of Canadian mortalities from that outbreak, and the federal government was criticized for delays in coordinating protective supplies for remote communities.
It has been widely noted that Indigenous people are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 due to unequal access to healthcare, overcrowded or unsafe housing, poverty and polluted drinking water. While a medical transportation framework just announced in British Columbia will help support healthcare access in that province, recent funding announcements from Ottawa have been called insufficient by some First Nations leaders.
“It’s like throwing a match on a haystack when we talk about health discrepancies with Indigenous populations,” Crowe said.
With First Nations closing borders, having members self-isolate within homes and sometimes declaring local states of emergency, town hall speakers emphasized the importance of mental health. Restoule spoke of safely adapting cultural practices to manage wellness, “taking care of ourselves from a spiritual and holistic perspective.”
“I think about Dr. Restoule and her sharing the teaching of the bear – how we’re all hibernating right now, but spring will come, and we will be stronger when that bear awakens,” Crowe explained. “It was such a great reminder of the teachings we already have, no matter what culture we are.”
Ultimately, she believes the crisis has motivated people to put aside politics and to work together as a society.
“I appreciate we’re coming together now at a time that we need to,” Crowe said. “We just want to use these tools to grow a garden of support for health directors. None of us are in this alone – this speaks to our Indigenous values about looking after one another collectively.”