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Indigenous group files legal challenge over 'inadequate' COVID-19 funding


OTTAWA — A national Indigenous organization that represents First Nations, Inuit and Metis living off-reserve and in urban centres is taking the federal government to court over what it alleges is "inadequate and discriminatory funding" for the COVID-19 response.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples has filed for a judicial review in the Federal Court of Canada, challenging the funding amount of $250,000 it received as part of a COVID-19 fund earmarked for off-reserve Indigenous populations.

The national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, Robert Bertrand, says the meagre funding allocation dedicated to off-reserve Indigenous organizations contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The amount CAP has received for our constituents across Canada is a slap in the face," Bertrand told a Commons committee Wednesday.

He said his organization planned to return the money to Ottawa.

The federal government pledged $305 million to help First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, with $15 million of this money set aside for organizations providing services to those living off reserves or in urban centres.

Earlier this month, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller acknowledged the $15 million was not enough. His department received far more applications than the 94 proposals it approved.

Miller was not available for an interview Wednesday, but a statement from his office said Indigenous Services Canada has been made aware of the court challenge.

His press secretary, Vanessa Adams, said in the statement the money provided to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples was "just one part" of the department's response to the pandemic.

"We know more support is needed and are actively working with communities to identify and deliver the supports to make sure no Indigenous community is left behind," Adams said.

Christopher Sheppard-Buote of the National Association of Friendship Centres told the committee the federal government's distinctions-based approach to COVID-19 relief funding, which recognizes the unique rights, interests and circumstances of First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, is leaving many urban Indigenous people and groups behind.

Those who are not living on a First Nation reserve or in an Inuit or Metis community are feeling "unseen" in the federal COVID-19 response, Sheppard Buote said, despite the fact the majority of Indigenous people in Canada do not live in a distinct Indigenous community.

Friendship centres across Canada, which provide culturally enhanced programs and services to urban Indigenous residents, jumped into action to help their clients when the pandemic began. They have been delivering food, caring for elders, supporting people in applying for federal and provincial funding programs and have been helping people find safe transportation and shelter — all in spite of an inadequate level of funding coming from Ottawa, he said.

Edith Cloutier, executive director of the Val-d'Or Native Friendship Centre, says the pandemic hit her centre hard, but her employees and volunteers did what they have always done — they took care of the people in their community.

"Financial concerns and funding were not our guiding principles on insisting on continuing to serve the members in our community. We acted because there was a need to act and to act quickly, and because it was the right thing to do," she said in French.

"But fighting this crisis, it will have a cost."

While she was pleased to see Ottawa dedicate funding to ensure Indigenous populations get additional support through COVID-19, she said the "blind spot" in this financial aid has been the people she serves.

This will have an impact on her community and on those who are helping fill those gaps, Cloutier said.

"It's unfortunate that the organizations that are there to help the most vulnerable themselves become vulnerable."

She said her centre is mourning the recent deaths of two former clients: a 41-year-old man named Mathieu, who died by suicide last month and Nathan, a 19-year-old Cree man who was found lifeless last week in downtown Val-d'Or, Que.

"These losses are collateral damage from COVID-19 ... previously, their moccasins had carried them to the friendship centre during a period of deep distress and vulnerability, looking for an outstretched hand, support, cultural anchor and some sense of identity," she said.

"Our experience over the last eight years and in managing this health crisis has allowed us to see that this pandemic has only increased the depression and the vulnerability of these Indigenous populations.

"We see that the tragic end of Mathieu and Nathan and so many more are there to remind us of this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

— Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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