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Loss of Canada Elders to Coronavirus Threatens Indigenous Culture

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This story was originally published June 1, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When Diane Janvier Dugan's mother was born in 1929, there were no roads or stores in her indigenous village in northwest Saskatchewan so as a child she learned how to hunt and trap for her food.

"I'm starting to realize how much my mother knows about being Dene," said Dugan, a teacher in the Canadian city of Saskatoon. "There aren't many people like my mum left anymore."

Her mother's village, La Loche, has been the epicenter of indigenous Canada's first major COVID-19 outbreak. More than 200 people in the community have contracted the virus so far and two elderly care home residents died, according to local officials.

Most vulnerable are the elders, whose high rates of conditions like hypertension and diabetes put them at risk.

In some areas, more than 85% of indigenous seniors have been diagnosed with at least one chronic condition, according to a study by Statistics Canada and the National Association of Friendship Centres.

The elders play a vital role as keepers of cultural knowledge, history and traditions passed on to future generations over millennia, said Chris Scribe, director of the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan.

"That textbook will leave if they leave this earth," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cultural indigenous event in Heiltsuk, Canada. | Photo handout via Tavish Campbell
Cultural indigenous event in Heiltsuk, Canada. | Photo handout via Tavish Campbell

Dugan remembers her mother telling stories on their family berry-picking trips and said she was concerned she will not have enough time with her mother to collect all her knowledge and pass it on to her children.

"Growing up as an indigenous person, you hear stories over and over again. That's how you get oral history passed down," said Dugan.


With strict travel restrictions in place, Canada's indigenous people — who make up about 5% of the population — have so far avoided the worst impacts of the pandemic.

Overall, Canada has reported about 92,000 cases and more than 7,000 deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University, compared with at least 613 indigenous cases and 11 deaths, according to the Yellowhead Institute, an indigenous-led think tank.

Health experts warn that COVID-19 could have a devastating impact if it breaks out in indigenous communities, which have high rates of poverty, overcrowding and underlying health conditions, along with limited medical services.

Unlike Dugan's mother, many elders are forced to leave their communities for urban centers when they grow older, due to a lack of health and care facilities.

More than 80% of Canada's COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in care homes, according to the National Institute on Aging, a think tank at Ryerson University.

"This is very traumatic and detrimental to the community, since the knowledge and the corporate memory is greatly disrupted," said John Cutfeet, a research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute.

He compared it to the residential school system, which started in the late 1800s and forcibly separated indigenous children from their families, subjecting them to horrific abuse in residential schools.

"It is the continuation of removing our people off the land," Cutfeet said in emailed comments.


In response to COVID-19, the federal government in March made C$305 million available to fund indigenous communities' needs like food and medical supplies, along with C$130 million to support Canada's northern territories, earmarked for indigenous people.

Last week it pledged an additional $650 million to support indigenous communities' COVID-19 response.

But those funds will not make up for a large gap in health care infrastructure, local experts say. In British Columbia, an alliance of indigenous chiefs, whose communities form the Central Coast First Nations wrote an open letter in May to the provincial government — responsible for indigenous health off-reserve — saying they were "working blindfolded" due to a lack of shared data.

One of the signatories was Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. In her remote community, just 30 people are fluent speakers of the Heiltsuk language, and they are all are over 75 years old.

The community has very limited capacity to deal with an outbreak, with just one ventilator at the health center, and mental health is a concern, Slett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"One of our matriarchs was telling me that she hasn't felt this way, in terms of the isolation and the disconnection, since she was in residential school," she said.

But Slett said she is hopeful. "We are 700 generations of Heiltsuk," she said. "We are resilient people."

In Clyde River, an Inuit hamlet of 1,100 people in Nunavut, the non-profit Ilisaqsivik Society has been preparing the community's 84 elders for COVID-19 by mapping their locations, sending care packages and creating educational radio shows.

"There's a huge lack of culturally relevant, linguistically relevant health resources in the community," said Malcolm Ranta, director of the Ilisaqsivik Society.

Majority-indigenous Nunavut is the only territory or province with zero cases so far. "It would be a miracle if this was the one corner of the world that COVID-19 didn't creep into," Ranta said.

Reporting by Jack Graham, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Zoe Tabary.

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