The COVID-19 pandemic has uniquely affected Indigenous communities in Canada. Indigenous peoples were already disproportionately affected by issues like food insecurity, education deficits, and employment barriers. The trend continued when COVID-19 spread to Canada. Self-governed Indigenous territories, legally still referred to as “Indian” Reserves, have an infection rate almost twice that of other communities. However, the mortality rate on Reserves is very low, only a third of the reported mortality rate for the rest of Canada’s population. It is somehow simultaneously both negatively and positively disproportional. 

This discrepancy between infection and mortality rates is a very good thing for Indigenous peoples. It is also a confusing statistic. It begs the obvious question: how is this happening? 

Historical Pandemics among the Indigenous Peoples 

The story of infectious diseases among Indigenous peoples is both a horrifying and cruel one. Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. By 1600, 9 out of every 10 Indigenous persons died of newly-imported diseases. On Canada’s west coast, the Haida nation alone was reduced from over 6,000 people to barely more than 800. 

It was biological eradication on a biblical scale. The depopulation hastened the colonization of Canada. It is impossible to understate the impact of pandemics in the history of Canada. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced its way into Canada’s history too.

Resurgence of the Indigenous Population 

The Indigenous population is increasing at a rapid pace in modern Canada. Families are larger as more children are born into them. It is not uncommon for Indigenous parents to have up to 5 children in their swelling households. By 2017, the Indigenous were already Canada’s fastest-growing demographic at a rate of 4 times faster than the rest of the country. Then COVID-19 arrived in Canada in 2020 with its then-unknown threats to every citizen. 

Responding to the Virus 

The pandemic broke out in March 2020. With history as a reminder, the Indigenous took it very seriously. That same month, the Reserve governments responded to the outbreak by closing their borders to outsiders. At the same time, many city-dwelling Canadians went on their annual spring break vacations. The Prime Minister announced the risk posed by COVID-19 was low and that Canadians should take “precautions.” It is now well-known that the risk was not low and precautions were not enough to halt the virus’s spread. 

The strong early response by local Indigenous  governments paid dividends. The first wave of COVID-19 hardly reached most Indigenous communities. By July, Canada’s federal government had confirmed only 314 cases on Reserves. By comparison, Ontario’s provincial government found hundreds of cases per day in the same month. 

That whole summer, many Reserves kept their borders shut to outside travellers. Others kept a network of checkpoints on the main roads. There was no good reason to open them while the pandemic raged in Canada’s cities. This, however, brought about conflict: near the city and COVID-19 hotspot of Montreal, disputes emerged over roads shared between Reserve residents and their neighbours.

In neighbouring Ontario, Indigenous checkpoint guards insisted that keeping their own communities safe was more important than not upsetting their neighbours. Despite any controversy resulting from the actions of Indigenous governments, these strategies were crucial in keeping COVID-19’s first wave away. It was even described as a miracle

The Second Wave

A winter spike in COVID-19 cases was grimly anticipated by healthcare experts. Unlike the first wave, the second wave of the virus was not avoided by the Indigenous. Aside from the west coast, most of Canada is a rural tundra. The bleak winter landscape is marked by long highways, occasional gas stations and small, isolated communities such as Reserves. It is very cold in winter and people naturally spend more time indoors. 

The Reserves were more vulnerable due to the high rate of crowded living spaces. The 2011 national survey revealed that 28% of people living on-Reserve reside in crowded homes. The associated risks were only amplified by the winter weather. 

The 2011 survey revealed 328,445 Indigenous Canadians actively lived on Reserves. This number is certainly higher in 2021 considering the annual growth of Canada’s Indigenous population. As of February 11, 2021, there were almost 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Reserves. Using data from the 2011 survey, this indicates an infection rate of around 5%. This is dangerously more than the 2.2%  average infection rate in Canada. 

“When you have people living under one roof, anywhere from six to as high as 14 members living under one roof…you can see how quickly that spread can happen,” said  chief Christian Sinclair of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. 

However, the impact of the second wave was lessened by the swift, effective response by the Indigenous  governments. Many medical facilities that serviced Indigenous communities had very limited resources. By restricting access to the Reserves during the first wave, Indigenous  governments were able to regulate the spread of the virus before the winter spike. 

As spring nears in 2021, the pandemic is beginning to end worldwide. The federal government’s vaccine rollout has been controversially sluggish. However, it has prioritized vaccine shipments to Reserves. Indigenous peoples are among the first in line to receive the shots. It is very likely the Indigenous will be among the first communities to emerge from the pandemic fully healthy. 

Surprising Statistics 

Despite the high rate of COVID-19 infections, the mortality rate on Reserves is just a third of the Canadian national average, which is 2.2%. One reason may be simply that the median age of Indigenous citizens is very young. Canada’s average age is 40 years old; Indigenous Canada’s is about 30.  

Over 28% of the Indigenous population is under fifteen years old. That is a higher percentage than in non-Indigenous Canadians. The youthful Indigenous Canadian population may also help explain why the infection rate is so high on Reserves. People aged 24 and under are the most likely to be exposed to COVID-19 regardless of their background. 

Evaluating The Indigenous Response to the Pandemic 

The decisions of Indigenous governments to preemptively lock down the Reserves were effective. This happened while the federal government was still trying to determine what actions to take early on in the pandemic. COVID-19’s first wave barely reached the Reserves. This put them in a strong position for the winter wave when it hit their large, growing households. It showed the advantages of local government over its federal counterpart. If the federal government makes plans for future pandemic responses, they should include members of Indigenous governments. 

Combined with the strong response of the Indigenous governments is the encouraging resilience of the young Indigenous population. It was a marked contrast to the historical destruction of foreign epidemics. Indigenous have held COVID-19 at bay. The leadership of their governments should not be ignored in the history books.

Geoff Russ

Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. Member of the Haida Nation. Avid reader and traveller.

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