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Politics ᐊ ᓃᑳᓂᔅᑭᑭᓂᐧᐃᒡ ᐊᐱᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Auditor General finds that Ottawa had a late response to medical needs in Indigenous communities

BY Ben Powless Jun 19, 2021

An Auditor General’s report on health resources in Indigenous communities found that the federal government met less than half their requests for additional health care staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, though it generally provided communities with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on a timely basis. 

The report calls on Ottawa to work with 51 isolated First Nations to address ongoing nursing shortages, and to provide standard levels of nursing and paramedic support to all Indigenous communities. 

The report showed that, between March and November, Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) processed 82% of the 1,622 requests for PPE from Indigenous organizations in an average of one and a half business days.

However, the Auditor General found that the department often did not have complete or accurate data on its own PPE stockpile, resulting in wildly inaccurate records and tracking, which could lead to problems determining what items needed to be replenished or which items were available for distribution to communities and organizations.

ISC was supposed to have a stockpile of PPE, a policy began after the 2003 SARS outbreak. The policy was neglected, however, and ISC had critical shortages of necessary PPE items at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“If the department does not provide the PPE needed by health care workers in Indigenous communities and organizations in a timely manner, health care workers may not be adequately protected against Covid-19,” reads the Auditor General’s report – putting all members of communities at higher risk.

In response, ISC said it is developing an “automated inventory management tool” to track inbound inventory and is finalizing inventory management requirements for warehousing services. The department also committed to maintaining adequate PPE to respond to public health emergencies.

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Elmer St. Pierre said the report matched what he had heard from communities. “We have received reports from our communities on their Covid support programs that there have been serious shortages of personal protective equipment and staffing,” he said.

“For PPE, our Covid response programs have reported stores being sold out of PPE available for sale, and a lack of government-supplied PPE available for off-reserve and non-Status Indigenous communities. For staffing, there have been serious shortages of personal support workers, in particular, ones available and willing to reach people in their homes who need support.”

St. Pierre said that off-reserve Elders were some of the most impacted by the failures of the federal government to provide adequate PPE and personnel, while also dealing with other health problems and socioeconomic issues such as poverty. 

St. Pierre pointed to the Supreme Court ruling in the Daniels v. Canada case of 2016, which established that Canada was constitutionally responsible for Métis and non-status Indians, saying, “The federal government has the final responsibility for ensuring that the rights, needs and interests of Indigenous people are recognized and protected, including the right to health and safety.”

The Cree Health Board did not respond to a request for comment.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.