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Indigenous needs during pandemic demand culturally competent response | Naomi Sayers

Friday, March 20, 2020 @ 12:38 PM | By Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers %>
Naomi Sayers
In May 2019, the final report of the national inquiry into the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people was leaked to the media. The final report contained 231 calls for justice, which are described as “legal imperatives”. Some of those calls for justice highlight health and wellness, and Indigenous rights, to name a few. The calls for justice are more important now than ever especially as the current novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads to Canada.

One important call for justice is the call to “establish culturally competent and responsive crisis response teams in all communities and regions, to meet the immediate needs of an Indigenous person, family, and/or community after a traumatic event[,] alongside ongoing support.” The call for justice highlights several examples of a traumatic event including murder, accident or a violent event. The call for justice leaves the door open to consider other traumatic events. One such traumatic event is a sudden change in health or social circumstances that impacts a community’s sense of well-being.

Having lived and worked in communities that experienced a range of trauma, including the trauma of floods and oil spills, I understand that these sudden changes mean, more often than not, Indigenous women, girls, youth and two-spirit people are left to fend for themselves. I have seen it and I have lived it firsthand.

Jenna Broomfield, an Inuk lawyer, says she agrees with Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Inuit Circumpolar Council and others who have spoken on the issue, and says “Northern communities need to have specific considerations incorporated as there is, among other things, a lack of infrastructure to respond to this pandemic.”

When sudden changes such as COVID-19 take place, the effects on a particular vulnerable community, like Indigenous communities, are often ignored or erased. An Indigenous community is not made vulnerable simply because they are Indigenous; they are made vulnerable due to the government’s inaction or action taken throughout the years.

It is not clear how the current federal government’s response will affect Indigenous communities for years to come.

Regardless, it is clear that the federal government must stop treating Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks as disposable. This means the federal government must seriously consider how its responses will adequately consider the needs and experiences of Indigenous women, girls, youth and two-spirit people.

The current COVID-19 crisis is concerning from a Gladue perspective, since it is not clear whether Gladue factors are being utilized appropriately and adequately to provide procedural protections for Indigenous women, and Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA people currently incarcerated or at risk of being incarcerated.

From a procedural perspective, Shaunna Kelly, Toronto area director for the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and a criminal defence lawyer who focuses on representing Indigenous clients, calls attention to the impact that COVID-19 is having on clients. Kelly says, “Keeping people in custody during this pandemic, particularly those awaiting trial and presumed innocent, is not just punishment, it is torture.” The stories that will come from the treatment of people in prison will haunt Canada for many years to come. Kelly continues by asking what the current system does to those currently in prison, “Does separating them from their families and community have any effect other than instilling a complete distrust in the system? My response, is that it does not.” Kelly is clear in her sentiments on the federal government’s treatment of prisoners,

“I’m angry. I’m angry that my clients are in custody for property offences or non-violent offences. I’m angry that there are mothers and fathers and cousins and siblings and grandparents that have no way to protect themselves and protect their families. I’m angry that they can’t speak to their families. I’m angry that more hasn’t been more done before now.”

Sometime in the morning of March 20, it was reported that a correctional officer at the Toronto South Detention Centre tested positive for COVID-19, causing the centre to go on lockdown and effectively trapping those on the inside.

While the legal profession is considering offering free help or consults to many communities and I commend them, it must remember that  these calls for justice exist and should ask governments to take culturally appropriate and trauma-informed action in accordance with the national inquiry’s calls for justice. Tanya Kappo, a Cree lawyer, highlights that a number of First Nations communities are asserting their own authority and implementing their own protective measures, such as declaring states of emergencies.

We must remember that there is work to be done but that the work does not need to be difficult or complex; it can be as simple as calling on their respective governments to ensure all calls for justice are enacted sooner rather than later. Kappo agrees that the national inquiry’s final reports “could be valuable in moving forward in response to COVID-19.” 

Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous lawyer from the Garden River First Nation with her own public law practice. She is also an adjunct professor at Algoma University, teaching primarily on Indigenous rights and governance issues. She tweets under the moniker @kwetoday.

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