Thank you, Chair.
Kwe. Tansi. Ulaakut. Boohzoo. Good afternoon. Bonjour.
Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that I'm here, very close to Canada's Parliament, on the unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
Mr. Chair, I'm pleased to join all of you, including my colleagues, Ministers Bennett and Vandal, virtually. With me as well to answer your questions from Indigenous Services Canada are Jean-François Tremblay, my deputy minister; Valerie Gideon, senior assistant deputy minister for the first nations and Inuit health branch; Dr. Tom Wong, chief medical officer of public health for FNIHB; Mary Kapelus, assistant deputy minister for education and social development programs; and Chris Duschenes, director general, lands and economic development sector.
On behalf of all of us, I'd like to thank the committee for this opportunity to provide an update on how our government has been working with first nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, indigenous organizations and communities, as well as provincial and territorial governments to mitigate the threat posed by the global pandemic of COVID-19.
As of April 30, we've seen 131 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in first nations communities on reserve. We're also tracking one confirmed case in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.
To support indigenous communities in preparing for and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, our government has allocated over $740 million to meet the public health needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis communities. To date, more than $59.8 million in funding has been used to purchase equipment for medical personnel and to support communities' preparedness measures. That funding is in addition to our government's budget 2019 investment of about $80 million to support preparedness for public health emergencies like this one. That investment was used to develop a network of regional coordinators and strengthen first nations communities' ability to deal with public health emergencies and pandemics.
Indigenous Services Canada continues to maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for use in first nations communities during public health emergencies. The stockpiles are available to first nations communities that may require personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of health care workers and others supporting the delivery of health services during a public health emergency like this pandemic.
To date, we have provided communities with 167,000 surgical gowns, 200,000 surgical masks and about half a million vinyl gloves. That is in addition to equipment already provided by the provinces and territories. It is very important to note that this is a collaborative effort. We continue to respond quickly to requests and assess them within 24 hours.
It's important to underscore that many community and service providers are adapting their operations to respect the requirement for physical distancing. National indigenous organizations, such as the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation and First Peoples Wellness Circle, have developed a series of resources related to COVID-19 that are available online. One of our supports has been to financially assist the First Peoples Wellness Circle in developing an online platform for its network of local multidisciplinary mental wellness teams that are currently offering services to 344 communities.
Also, working with the provider, we've increased the number of crisis intervention counsellors on shift at the Hope for Wellness helpline, which is now receiving more than 100 calls and chats a week linked to COVID-19. The experience of self-isolation and physical distancing and having family members who may be at higher risk or who fall ill can have significant and real impacts on mental health. We recognize this and are engaged with partners to support solutions to address and bolster mental health, particularly for youth.
Supporting indigenous youth is another key area of our focus. The department is working with indigenous partners, including youth organizations, to support and promote indigenous resources for youth. For example, We Matter is an indigenous-led youth organization focused on life promotion and messages of hope and resilience. They've developed tool kits, which are available for youth, teachers and support workers to help youth and those who support youth.
Similarly, the Canadian Roots Exchange has set up the creation community support fund to support youth mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic with local solutions.
Members of this committee may recall that on March 18, the Government of Canada allocated $305 million towards a new, distinctions-based indigenous community support fund to address immediate needs related to COVID-19 in indigenous communities and amongst urban indigenous populations. This funding is part of the COVID-19 economic response plan and is in addition to the needs-based support for first nations and Inuit health and emergency management.
We recognize that post-secondary students are facing an unprecedented situation because of COVID-19.
A week ago, on April 22, the Prime Minister announced nearly $9 billion in funding for post-secondary students and recent graduates, including indigenous students. We know that many indigenous students face unique and special situations related to financial stability, employment opportunities or just the ability to continue their education as planned.
That is why $75.2 million will be provided to support first nations, Inuit and Métis post-secondary students while they deal with COVID-19. This is over and above existing funding for financial assistance programs for indigenous post-secondary students. It could cover the cost of technological equipment as courses move online, allow for summer school enrolment, and cover expenses related to food, child support, housing and transportation. In the event of delayed graduation, it could cover an additional academic year and associated expenses.
Ultimately, this funding is meant to ensure that indigenous post-secondary students are able to continue or start their studies as planned despite barriers posed by COVID-19.
We're also taking steps to support indigenous-owned businesses during this crisis. The Government of Canada will provide up to $306.8 million in funding to help small and medium-sized indigenous businesses through the network of aboriginal financial institutions that offer financing to indigenous businesses. This measure will help an estimated 6,000 indigenous-owned businesses endure this difficult time and will hopefully provide the stability they need to persist.
Indigenous businesses, including indigenous government-owned corporations and partnerships, are also now eligible to apply for the Canada emergency wage subsidy to support them in their efforts to retain and rehire laid-off employees and weather the current challenges. Taxable indigenous government-owned corporations are already eligible for the wage subsidy. We've adjusted the eligibility for the wage subsidy to include indigenous government-owned corporations and partnerships to support them to retain employees who are still on the payroll and to rehire workers previously laid off. I know this is important to committee members, because it's been raised by a number of you, and I appreciate your advocacy, which made a difference.
The government has also established a business credit availability program to provide $40 billion in additional support through the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada, which are working together with private sector lenders to coordinate credit solutions for individual businesses, which some indigenous businesses may be able to leverage. This is important.
Finally, I’d like to bring attention to the positive progress we have seen in our support for first nations indigenous people off reserve and in the urban indigenous populations generally.
We recently concluded a proposal-based process to distribute $15 million to organizations that provide critical services to first nations off reserve and indigenous peoples living in urban centres. This funding is part of the government’s indigenous community support fund, which I referred to earlier. To date, 94 proposals have been supported through the indigenous community support fund. This includes support for friendship centres as they continue their important work to serve urban indigenous communities in the face of this pandemic.
Again, thank you for the advocacy of members on this committee who pushed so hard.
We know that friendship centres, for example, are playing a crucial role, with their key support ranging from delivering food to families, young people and elders; responding to calls for assistance and support; to providing crucial mental health and cultural support for urban indigenous community members.
As our response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues and adapts to new data, we ask indigenous communities and partners to continue to assess their evolving needs. We ask them to reach out to their regional departmental contacts so that we may assist them in supporting community members. At the same time, we continue to focus on longer-term goals such as housing, employment and ending drinking-water advisories.
We are determined to respond to the evolving needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis communities and their members and to respond to requests from Indigenous communities themselves.
That is why, for example, the Canadian Rangers are currently helping to distribute food and supplies and to provide medical assistance not only in Nunavik, but also in northern Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and northern Quebec. The Canadian Armed Forces and their Ranger detachments have extensive experience with assisting communities, sometimes their own communities, and everyone in Canada.
We have seen Rangers and Canadian Armed Forces members stand up and step up wherever Canadians need it most all across the country: in our long-term care facilities, in areas with acute resource needs, and in remote areas of the country. That is why we continue to work together to improve access to essential services for indigenous peoples.
Today our thoughts and prayers go to the military personnel who lost their lives earlier this week in the helicopter crash in the Ionian Sea, as well as to their families. Canada is grieving with them as well, as we all try to come to grips with this tragic incident.
The government has designed and supported a series of measures to provide timely and direct support to all Canadians and peoples of Canada in response to this crisis. These measures will help us to meet the needs of Canadian households and to ensure that Canadians can pay for essentials like housing and groceries during this difficult time. Further, these measures offer timely financial support to indigenous peoples in Canada, no matter where they reside.
On another note, I want to thank the members of this committee in particular who have reached out either directly to me, to parliamentary secretaries or to my staff to advocate for the continued health response to a health problem. This is not a partisan issue, and I want to thank you for parking that and moving towards ensuring we have a health response to a health problem, because at the end of the day, we're talking about the lives of Canadians, indigenous peoples living in Canada, and that is precisely the measure by which we will all be judged as we tackle this epidemic we are all confronted with on a daily basis.
I want to thank everyone on this committee who has reached out, talked to my parliamentary secretaries and done amazing work to advocate for the people reaching out to them. We are taking a number of measures and putting them forward in record time. Obviously, mistakes are made and when you point them out we do our best to adjust. I want to thank you all for that. I want to highlight the non-partisan nature of the outreach, and highlight your character as humans in having done that. I appreciate that deeply. My staff appreciates it, and indeed I believe everyone on the committee appreciates it.
Again, working together, we can save lives and we can flatten the curve. Meegwetch. Nakurmiik. Thank you. Merci. Mahsi cho.