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Resilience in a Time of Crisis: Indigenous Communities and COVID-19

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Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall from the Eskasoni First Nation, Unama'ki District (Cape Breton), Nova Scotia
June 11, 2020

Indigenous communities globally are grappling with the threat posed by COVID-19. Here in Canada, where many of our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities have already been impacted, this virus is bringing to the fore structural inequalities that existed long before the pandemic began. These disparities are characterized by a lack of sufficient infrastructure in many of our communities, including inadequate health facilities, minimal staff, as well as outdated or a lack of necessary equipment and supplies. It also includes decreased food security in communities where it was already fragile. 

Many of our communities are unable to follow prevention guidelines, with families often living in close proximity to one another, sometimes with many generations sharing one home. This means that many are simply unable to follow social distancing requirements. Several communities have not had access to safe drinking water for years. The threat COVID-19 poses to the health and safety of our Elders, the knowledge-keepers and memory of our communities, is especially disquieting. 

We have been here before. Generations before us faced smallpox, influenza, and other viral infections for which we had no immunity. These, and the genocidal practices that accompanied them, decimated our populations and created vulnerabilities which expedited Western expansion into our territories. The deficiencies outlined above emerge from those same colonial and neo-colonial systems of oppression and assimilation, and the failure to adequately address these gaps before this pandemic began intensifies the threat posed to our communities by coronavirus now. 

There is something else that has emerged from this past, however: our collective resilience as Indigenous Peoples. Our communities have developed knowledge and practices to help us meet this crisis with fortitude. In the midst of so much uncertainty and fear, voices of strength from Indigenous leaders are rising up. As early as late March, the First Nations Health Managers Association (FNHMA) held a virtual townhall, where Dr. Valerie Gideon of the Mi’kmaq Nation of Gesgapegiag offered the following words of encouragement: “We have to work together (…) Communities have tremendous resilience. They have survived after generations and generations of hardship and trauma and discrimination and colonization (…) The role that we play now, here, is to build on the strengths of and the assets in communities to support them.” 

We have seen this spirit of community and support realized by the work of Indigenous doctors on the frontlines, and through the recognition of our knowledge and expertise as essential to working together to overcome this pandemic. Many have taken this time to reconnect and go to the land to weather the storm. We have seen our communities uniting virtually, through digital sharing circles, sharing ceremonial songs, teachings, and art, by organizing online gatherings like digital slam poetry events and virtual graduations, like the University of Manitoba’s online powwow. We have seen Elders sharing their teachings online to support those they cannot be with. Around the world, Indigenous communities are asserting their sovereignty and responding to this pandemic with innovative solutions, enacting deep knowledge cultivated over generations. Although there is much despair, there is also cause for hope.

For some, this is also a time of contemplation. In Eskasoni, Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall has stressed that there are lessons to be learned from this pandemic. He shared his perspective in a recent conversation: “This virus will run its course. We should consider this as a time-out that the Creator has given us. And this time-out, I believe we should take it, to really see what lessons we can learn and bring forth, so that our journey forward will be one that will be harmonious. Not just for the well-being of the two-legged, but for all living things—for all of Creation.” 

We have been given an opportunity to slow down, take stock, and reassess the patterns that have led us to this moment. As Albert asks, “What are we going to learn? Is it going to be business as usual, or is it going to be a total transformation—a cognitive transformation, in which our thinking will be completely in tune, in harmony with our Earth Mother.”

This pandemic has exemplified our profound interconnectedness. We need one another. The deep-seated systems of inequality that brought us here—those which polarize and marginalize, those which tear us from one another and our home, the Earth we depend on, those which reward unsustainable acts of singular gain to the detriment of all else—do not serve us. Our Earth has offered us a teaching. Our willingness to listen, to learn, and to act may well set the stage for a resilient global community defined by principles of equality, sustainability, and shared responsibility. 

Special thanks to Albert Marshall, Cathy Martin, and Jennifer Robinson for sharing their time and knowledge for this article. Wela’lioq.