‘Hidden epidemic’ in Indigenous communities: federal minister

Chair of Det'on Cho Corporation Bobby Drygeese (left), Chief of the Yellowknives Dene community of N'Dilo Ernest Betsina (left centre) at a government announcement in 2019. Photo by Emelie Peacock/100.1 Moose FM.
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While NT remains COVID free for the time being, the federal Indigenous Services Minister said there may be a “hidden epidemic” in Indigenous communities.

Mental-health problems are hitting Indigenous, First Nations and Inuit peoples particularly hard during the pandemic, Marc Miller, Minister for Indigenous Services said in an interview with Canadian Press.

Six in ten Indigenous people surveyed said their mental health has worsened since physical distancing regulations were imposed, according to Statistics Canada.

Thirty eight per cent of Indigenous people said they had fair or poor mental health, compared with 16 per cent in a similar survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2017.

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NT’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola said the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the south is causing anxiety in communities in NT.

Kandola said the territorial government has provided information about how people can access counselling services and the GNWT’s 24-hour mental health phone line and increased ability to conduct virtual counselling.

“One of the things we need to look at is isolation away from your own home and what impact that has,” said Kandola. “I’ve heard enough stories from people who are experiencing anxiety and mental health concerns and not being in their own home.”

Currently those who are entering the territory, unless they are an essential worker, have to isolate themselves for 14 days in one of the four isolation hubs in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River or Fort Smith.

People can not complete their isolation in smaller communities outside of these four hubs, something the GNWT may have to look at.

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“We need to make a balance between the risk of COVID and the risk of women’s mental health and wellbeing,” added Kandola.

Miller added Canadians have to recognize that Indigenous communities have an existing socio-economic gap that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“The fact that they have performed exceedingly well doesn’t change the fact that that socio-economic gap still exists.”

Dene National Chief Norman Yakelaya said Indigenous communities have long been underfunded and need to be given money directly, so the communities “can do things for ourselves.”

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“It reminds me in residential schools, the way the pecking order went through is that the Métis people were the last in line to get clothing, winter gear, or any type of support,” Yakelaya said. “That analogy you can use to the First Nations in regards to the support for COVID.”

Yakelaya himself said he was struggling with trauma stemming from his past in residential schools, as Sept. 30 marked Orange Shirt Day.

“Yesterday I had a hard day, because that trauma is still in me as a former student. The hurt is still there. The guilt, the shame, the anger,” said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. “It’s part of me that I do not want to talk about, because of the trauma I suffered.”

Miller highlighted the $2 billion currently being sent to Indigenous, First Nations and Inuit communities across the country to help manage COVID-19. There has been additional money targeted for mental health initiatives.

“We are deploying $82.5 million to tackle the mental-health epidemic, which in fact has claimed more Indigenous lives than the COVID has during the same time period.”

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