From the beginning, PhiLab has aimed to be partnership-oriented in their research as well as their knowledge dissemination and mobilization efforts on grantmaking philanthropy. The content of the present interview represents the point of view of the guests and their affiliated organizations. We are sharing it and inviting you to react in order to feed the debate.
Gail Bitternose is Cree, and a member of George Gordon First Nation in Treaty 4 territory, south central Saskatchewan. Gail has two daughters and one granddaughter all based in Calgary. She is working to complete her MBA in Community Economic Development, while working as a Consultant to First Nations’ leadership; CEOs; and entrepreneurs. Gail specializes in all aspects of First Nations business and community economic development. Gail is Co-chair for the Alberta First Nation Women’s Council on Economic Security.
Trea Stromhunter is a Ph.D. student with the Natural Resource Institute at the University of Manitoba. I have partnered with the Winnipeg Foundation, MITACS, University of Manitoba and Dakota Plains Wahpeton Oyate to create a platform for an Indigenous-led Community Foundation for Dakota Plains.
COVID-19 and Indigenous communities in Western Canada
Katherine Macdonald (KM): Hello to you both. Why don’t we start with each of you presenting yourselves and introducing us to the work you do.
Trea Stormhunter (TS): My name is Trea Stormhunter, I am currently an acting director of Métis Capital Housing and the Family Reunification program and do contract work with Nechi Institute Center for Indigenous Learning. I am also a Ph.D. student with the University of Manitoba, with three research projects underway with rural First Nations communities. I am Anishinaabe, Ukranian and Irish, my roots come from the Bay Mills Chippewa community and the Odawa communities of Grand and Little Traverse located in Michigan, however I grew up in Canada. My passions are Indigenous self-determination, community economic development and philanthropy. I believe that when given the right tools and access to services, people thrive. What I see happening in the Indigenous communities in Canada is that the majority of them, maybe 80%, are not provided with the right tools and therefore are constantly in survival mode. My passion would be that when given the opportunities and tools, they could thrive like everyone else in Canada. Chi-miigwech!
Gail Bitternose (GB): My name is Gail Bitternose, I am Cree, from the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. I presently live in Calgary, Alberta. I moved here 31 years ago and raised my two daughters there. I now have one granddaughter, who is 12. I am a Treaty Indian, and both of my parents are as well, they were both Residential School children. We have our own challenges as a family and in raising our children in an urban setting. Moving away from my family and my home in Saskatchewan was a big transition, but one I felt I needed to do. I thought it would be easier for my kids to grow up somewhat more detached from the challenges that we face as First Nations people, but I found that no matter where you go in Canada you will face racism and challenges.
Fast forwarding to now, I am working to complete an MBA in Community Economic Development at Cape Breton University. It’s been a challenge to focus on school, but it’s been my dream to start a business. That is where my whole passion is: community economic development. I’m a former lender and banker, so I have the financial side of things, and I always worked with First Nations entrepreneurial activities. Now, I will have the Community Economic Development MBA education and I can advise the leadership on starting a business plan and the financial aspects.
Indigenous People have been denied access to financial independence, self-sustainability, investment in business, our own education, our own language. We’ve been slowly coming out of that, towards the dreams of wealth, health, prosperity, freedom, happiness, wellness, togetherness, all the things that we lost over the years. We’re still struggling to find what was taken away, but through education, empowerment and helping each other, we do find a way.
I am also a co-chair on the Alberta First Nations Women’s Council on Economic Security. We meet and discuss critical issues involving ministries and access to government services for First Nations women and families in Alberta and make policy recommendations. I am new to the philanthropic world. The closest I’d say I have ever been to the sector is through my grandfather’s foundation which awards scholarships to youth in Saskatchewan: the Senator in Chief Hilliard McNab Family Foundation for students studying Law or political science or business. I’m happy to be here to share what I know, and my reality.
Interview with Trea Stormhunter & Gail Bitternose
Listen to “Interview with Trea Stormhunter & Gail Bitternose – Trea Clip 1” on Spreaker.
KM: Trea, how do you feel the pandemic has affected your research with rural indigenous communities?
TS: There’s a number of different communities that I’m working with. We have a Boreal home-building project up in Wasagamack and Garden Hill. There has been potential discovery of the highly infectious COVID-19 variant in Garden Hill, with 1 in 10 of their population being impacted. I also was advised that Paungassi First Nations Anishinaabe Community, in North-Eastern Manitoba, reported seven probable cases of the Coronavirus variant. What we see happening is that COVID-19 rates are much higher in remote and rural First Nations communities, and they lack hospitals, access to ventilators and doctors. They also lack the bandwidth necessary for distant learning, access to all-weather roads, access to urban centers to seek out medical treatment and pipes for safe drinking water and sewage management. When we look at the inequities and impacts of COVID-19, it’s not only medically, but also the infrastructure and ability to respond appropriately in dealing with the risk factors and causes. We must look beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Yes, the crisis is revealing social inequities, but we cannot lose sight of the broader socio-economic inequalities that face the Indigenous communities, particularly rural communities. Some of these include the severe housing shortage, limited healthcare resources and poverty, all of which disproportionately put Indigenous communities at risk. If we don’t address these inequalities, we will constantly find ourselves treating the symptoms and not the causes of the vulnerabilities being revealed by the pandemic.
Take the short-sighted, colonial COVID-19 policies put in place by the Federal and Manitoba governments for instance. What they do is exacerbate these inequalities and worsen the outcome for COVID-19 in these communities. When we have short-sighted government policies, it further entrenches the marginalization and risk that Indigenous people are facing in these communities. In summary, if we look at how COVID-19 is affecting Indigenous communities, the transmission rate is extremely high and they lack the proper infrastructure to deal with it effectively.
KM: You speak of short-sighted governmental policies, do you have any specific examples?
TS: When we look at short-sighted policies, we look at access to vaccines. Let’s say, one of the rollouts was to distribute the vaccines to elderly people, immuno-compromised individuals and First Nations. Well, all of that has been rolled back. If the policy is in place for vulnerable populations to receive the vaccine, it is especially important in small communities where there is overcrowded housing, often with mold, no access to health care. When somebody comes into their community with COVID-19 and it spreads, what can they do? Add to this the poor infrastructure and weather issues, their ability to fly out to a city or an urban area to receive proper medical care, it’s pretty much impossible to control.
On top of that, when there’s a death that happens in that community because of COVID-19, there’s the no gatherings policy. If you look at Haisla First Nations, one of their ceremonies when you pass over to the other side is a four day ritual where family gathers and cooks together. The family lines up around the community and the individual is taken across so that everyone can say their goodbyes and their prayers. There’s also drumming and singing, and so all of this is impacted by COVID. So, it is not only their healthcare that is affected, but also their traditions because of the measures against all forms of gatherings. I know a number of communities that have been greatly impacted, because it’s a loss of their tradition that they can’t honor that person. In a Western community they say: “Well, we’ll just do the funeral online.” Well, if you’re in a remote community and there’s no access to proper bandwidth or internet, that’s not possible. Indigenous people, we’re a collective society and relationships are very important so this further adds to the mental health issues, depression, addiction, and other areas because we’re grieving, and it’s compounded grief. These are just a couple of examples of how policies aren’t taking Indigenous realities into account when they’re made, it’s just not thought through.
KM: I feel many communities are feeling the secondary effects of these policies. How to measure the negative impacts of that isolation on mental and physical health. You also mentioned how it has affected indigenous students’ experience, what has their experience been?
TS: When we look at education, the school year was cancelled in most Northern First Nations communities in March, 2020 because they have no online options. COVID-19 requires technological support for distant and remote education in the North. For the last 20 years, post-secondary education was mediated through technology for rural communities in Quebec, allowing for long-distance and remote college, specialized secondary education and dedicated classrooms. Why don’t they do that in Manitoba? Manitoba doesn’t allow for that at all. The University College of the North is centered in Thompson and The Pas, which are settler communities with 10 small satellite facilities in First Nations. They don’t adequately cover the more than 30 communities particularly those considered “Flying communities”. If we look at their funding model, they charge more for programs delivered in First Nations communities although they are underfunded, poorer and can’t afford it. Public College and University programs are heavily subsidized in the province of Manitoba, resulting in tuition to be around 6 000$ a year for full-time students. On reserves, post-secondary education typically costs 15 000$ to 30 000$ per student The lack of subsidies for these communities creates further barriers for post-secondary education. Under COVID-19 policies, education for many indigenous students from remote communities is being denied. These discriminatory education policies create barriers for building local capacity to fight COVID-19 in the North: doctors, nurses, architects, and many others. Equitable education policies for Indigenous people living on rural and remote reserves are needed, that’s a given. Policies that consider and include First Nations in broadband distant education opportunities and post-secondary education subsidies would be something that could bring us to an equal playing field.
KM: I wasn’t aware of these limitations, and am not sure how many people are. Some policies can clearly hinder communities in their capacities to develop.
TS: On top of that, what’s happening with our basic right to access clean water? Washing hands is vital to prevent COVID-19, but this is severely hampered by water rationing due to limited supply of safe water in places in Northern Manitoba. In Wasagamack, their system broke down in May and they had no water supply, even people at the health center had zero access to water. How do you maintain sanitary conditions when you don’t have water? In Island Lakes, they’re surrounded by water and yet they don’t have access to clean water, it’s just very odd. In the short term, I think we need to change the Federal policy to budget for piped water on reserves. We need training for trades people in First Nations communities to do the work, let’s keep it at the local level. Cisterns are a thing of the past, we’re in 2021, not 1940. In the short term, we need to deal with issues of the training and budget for the safety of the equipment, of cleaning and maintaining the water cisterns. If they’re going to be using them, at least let it be safe. Ideally, there should be a goal to replace all existing cisterns in First Nations communities with pipes! It should be a priority, especially for communities that have been on water boil advisories for 10-15 years. Philanthropy can help in that area. When we’re in a pandemic, people need to have the tools to control the pandemic or at least not have it spread. We should be able and equipped to follow the COVID-19 sanitary measures.
KM: These issues were there before the pandemic, but COVID-19 seems to have exacerbated them further. What has the current crisis affected in the communities you work with?
GB: I work with First Nations communities, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations and small businesses. The pandemic has definitely slowed down our First Nations communities in business start-ups and expansions. Financing is taking longer; communities often shut down during COVID lockdown. It hasn’t stopped business progress, however. As a matter of fact, my work in consulting with business development has picked up a lot. I like being in an environment of development and planning, of “Let’s do this, let’s realize some dreams of wealth and prosperity”. Let’s just say it, once we have that, it will answer a lot of the issues that we face every single day. The Government of Canada’s website shows us the numbers through the Indigenous Services Canada: how many cases of COVID have been reported up until yesterday, how many have passed away, how many active cases, hospitalizations, etc. At least they are keeping track, unlike in Alberta. We’re up to 5 621 cases as of yesterday, Saskatchewan 5 275, Manitoba 5 039 for a grand total of 15 935 out of 19 361 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in First Nations. These three provinces are well known as the test provinces of poor and one-sided policies that serve the governments and municipalities’ purposes, and settler purposes, but not First Nations. If anything, it stunts our growth.
The pandemic also allowed people to work from home, which was very difficult and required adjustment and learning Zoom, Webex and learning to work with the technology that you have. Your home is your sanctuary, you don’t go there to do work. We all learned how to meet online. The pandemic has separated us physically, but we have adapted. It took us out of our comfort zone to go online and rely on technology so much, to carry this communication and this basic human need to connect with our loved ones, our family and our neighbors. It’s forced us to slow down and not get stressed out and upset by something that we have absolutely no control over. You still have to be a leader in your community, you still need to lead, the work doesn’t stop, in fact, it increases. It definitely made some changes and forced us to adapt.
On the positive side, Indigenous markets have opened up. I am working with an entrepreneur in Saskatchewan who does extermination, and he is doing well. He was able to start his business, get financing and he’s getting contracts. I’m also working with a store that has adapted their services to compensate for the slowdown in foot traffic, forcing them to go online. They offer classes and do what they know. Although Indigenous People can be excellent business people, we have been denied access to money to fund our business ideas. Many have a different view of personal wealth and handle it quite differently. If there were different policies in place from the beginning of Canada, that treated its Indigenous people with respect and with fairness, and fair representation, we may be wealthier than we are today. We have been on this land since the beginning of our time. We had already established our lives and livelihoods. Because of our long history, we think differently, we have this connection to the land and that would make us investors. We wouldn’t send the money out, we would actually turn around and invest in education, invest in every aspect of our society, as a country on our land. That differentiated us from the Canadian government who are basically just the administrators of Treaties, of our wealth.
Our wealth was taken and now we are competing for handouts and little funding. We have to enter this platform, similar to my youngest daughter entering a beauty pageant. Thousands of dollars later, we learn how hard it is to compete. This is how I feel when I am developing a funding proposal for four million dollars, which is pennies as far as I’m concerned when it comes to a province of First Nations people and communities. Setting up a gas bar and convenience store could be a five million dollar project and they want 4 million to spread out throughout the province? We did the work, we brought our experts in, we got our numbers right, we know what we’re doing, and yet our application gets denied.
For example, when we applied to the Community Opportunity Readiness Program (CORP) through ISC and CIRNAC, they told us we would have to do it their way if we wanted funding. It consisted of hiring their experts, paid from our funding envelope, and anywhere from two to ten years before the business was open. After consulting with the project leadership, we refused. Is it a healthy policy for funding to be refused unless First Nations sign away their sovereign rights to financial resources, handing over the control of the entire project? Is that a valid working strategy?
Indigenous People have also been showing great social media skills. We’re on Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and businesses are starting up left and right, I love it. Many of the Indigenous business owners I see know how social media works. They’re going online not as an ad, but as a presence on the platforms. In my experience, the entrepreneur who is a single parent, or a single income home starting with their first five dollars have been very successful. They work diligently, they develop their product, they reach out and build their customer base, building their brand. People used to spend time and money building up their brand, now you just build a customer base online and build your brand at the same time. Brands cost money and time, but now it’s part of the package. I encourage them to strive for the next milestone to make sure they build slow and steady, to focus on their image. First Nations businesses have started up, adapted, expanded, and grown. Watching this unfold is very inspiring and positive, and that is what I want to do too. The bigger businesses have slowed down but have not stopped. One thing that has changed is our overall view of wealth and prosperity. Now, having a job, an income and savings makes you prosperous. This is how I have seen the pandemic affect First Nations businesses.
KM: Do you feel that there is a difference in the work/home divide in First Nations communities versus settler communities? Are there any social inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic?
GB: I haven’t noticed a difference. It’s definitely become a new culture for most. I don’t think it’s different between the rest of Canada and First Nations communities, it’s the same challenge. It’s a challenge to work from home, but it’s also a challenge to get up in the morning, get into your car and go to work. So now you get to work from home. You have the same challenges to adapt to.
TS: When First Nations are positioned in geographically desirable areas there isn’t much of a difference. Where I see it not being the same is in rural communities where there is overcrowding. For many living in crowded housing, sometimes with mold, the office is both a safe and good place for them to go. When you look at rural flying communities, the chiefs of chief in council or the community economic development officer or the teachers, they don’t live in these beautiful big homes on reserves, they are also underfunded and so are facing these same challenges as well. That’s where I would see differences, geography plays a big part in inequality.
GB: Adapting to working from home and online and having to rely on technology is not the greatest, but we have our cellphones in our back pockets. We’ve been walking around with this accessible technology, even my 12-year-old granddaughter does, because of online schooling. Everyone has had to adapt to relying on technology for meetings and I hope that it stays this way, that work from home is recognized as work because it is. As long as employers can recognize that. In some places, there are more old-fashioned employers who think you still have to be at the office at 8:30. So they’re forcing people to go into work, sitting with people from their own community but who don’t have anything to do with their job, exposing their workers to the virus and the new variants. This mindset can be dangerous, and is based on control. They don’t believe working from home is actually working, which is their personal opinion. Every employer in the country should ask themselves if they believe their employees are actually working when at home.The answer should be yes, because you hired them for that reason. When you are hired for a job, you have the responsibility to do your work and keep the company going. When people understand that, I think working from home should be seen as a new way of doing business.
KM: Have you noticed any differences in how the pandemic has affected younger populations, women or the elderly?
TS: I think the elders are significantly impacted. Elders are traditional knowledge keepers, they’re the ones we go to when we’re going through a difficult time, to feel that love from our (grandparents) Mishomis and Nokomis. Especially if you have grandparents who went to residential school and went through their full circle of challenges related to assimilation and now they’re in a place where they’re sharing their traditions and knowledge, and you’re now not allowed to see them. A couple of my friends went to a Dakota First Nations to see their Kunsi and there was a big sign on the door: “Knock and stand in front of my front window and I’ll wave to you”. They were really sad, not being able to hug their grandchildren. From what I’ve heard, the loneliness is triggering and takes them back to residential school (segregation from others). These childhood memories they worked through resurface, they’re back in this place where they can’t see their family. Despite the reasons being different, they still have feelings around intergenerational trauma of when they were taken away. A lot of times too with the younger ones, some parents haven’t done their healing and the grandparents are the primary caregivers or support. If the younger children aren’t able to go there anymore, it places them at higher risk. Then COVID isolation results in potential mental health issues such as depression, which increases self-medication. Due to COVID restrictions, children don’t have that safe place to go anymore. These are some of the ways the pandemic is affecting our young ones and our elders.
GB: In our First Nations communities, the pandemic has definitely exacerbated existing social inequalities. The existing social issues and challenges spread through our communities and forced everyone into overcrowded housing, unemployment, economic insecurity and financial stress. Drug use, overdose, and suicides all increased. Then there’s Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) other illnesses that are high in First Nations communities. Deaths from COVID were simply added to that. Stress, anxiety, violence and depression have all increased as people try to cope with these changed conditions. COVID made good conditions less so, and poor conditions even worse. People had to house their homeless and transient relatives, often drug users, which caused stress on housing and finances.
First Nations communities are some of the most vulnerable in the country, besides the elderly and the children. We have children becoming orphans due to the high mortality rates, which has been the case throughout Canadian history. The questions remain: How much is needed to develop a First Nation community’s economy? How much time will it take to create and generate wealth in a First Nations community? How do we address systemic racism? The governments have to stop denying the Treaty Indians their rights to water, social services, wealth, land, language, funding and financing support and partnerships. People, especially the governments, claim they take actions, but if so, why are the Treaty Indians still some of the most vulnerable communities? Why are so many still without water? Why are we still the poorest with the highest mortality rates, regardless of the pandemic? Why is it that 85% of the children in the CPS are our native children? In the end, why are Indigenous communities still facing so many more social inequalities?
KM: What is the role of philanthropy in all of this? Have you found that the COVID crisis has exposed any limits of settler philanthropy?
TS: First off, I think we need to be looking at Act 36.1 of the Canadian Constitution which looks at equalization and regional disparities both at the federal and provincial government levels, which state they are committed to A) Promoting equal opportunities for the wellbeing of Canadians; B) Furthering economic development to reduce disparity and opportunities; and, C) Providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians. Reasonable quality would be piping in water in First Nations. That is a public service of reasonable quality yet that’s not met. So when we look at philanthropy, for grantmakers, we need to dispel the myths that First Nations people are on a free ride, with free money and don’t pay taxes. We pay taxes. The only way you don’t pay taxes, (again, from a colonial imposed system), is when you live on reserve, or if your business is on reserve. The perception that Indigenous people receive free money and don’t know how to manage it, is an absolute farce. We have had subsistence economies and have thrived for thousands of years prior to forced colonization. So I think a priority would be to educate grantmakers on putting the power or the decision-making into the hands of the local people, (not just Chief in Council). They will look at the community and ask themselves how can my children, my grand-children, my great-grandchildren benefit from the philanthropic community? So dispelling the myths, and asking, why do we feel the way we do? If you actually read the Indian act and replaced the term Indian with “honkey”, maybe they would realize the oppressive legislation Indigenous people face.r. With successful pilot projects providing equal opportunities and essential public services First nation people thrive just like everybody else, if not better.
When I look at the philanthropic sector, I don’t look at endowments that are only for a couple of years, they should be permanent. When you receive a permanent endowment, you’re able to do things with that money because you know it won’t be cut short.
KM: From what I understand there is a strong need to involve local communities and donees into the process as well as abiding more by a trust-based and long-term philanthropic model. Can you think of any examples of philanthropic actions that encompass this approach?
GB: On my end, I see the philanthropic sector adapting its practices toward helping vulnerable populations such as children. I believe in teaching children about philanthropy as they will have a better understanding of it and carry it forward, passing it on to the next generation keeping it alive and thriving.
Every First Nation also deserves to have a historical cultural center to tell their history, the family lineages, how their community came to be and who their ancestors are now. TWho are those people from the black and white photos that many families have kept for many years, as far back as the 1920s. It’s amazing to look at these photographs, that these were the people in your community many years ago. It has an impact on you. I strongly believe in this because when you go there, and you see your history, your people, where you came from, your roots, it builds people up. If In the Tsuut’ina Nation near Calgary, my eldest daughter Charity and granddaughter are members, and they developed a cultural center in their community. They get the highschool kids to work there and the elementary school kids tour there. It’s their history and it builds their esteem, makes them proud of who they are.
I would also like to see philanthropy more involved in food security in communities as it is a step towards the bigger picture, through the process of happiness building. What makes us happy as humans? We need good clean water, access to healthy foods, to technology, experts to help us plan and build, and to funds of course. Philanthropic activities and organizations can work towards sustainability, by building holistic communities among First Nations people, starting with the children and building up their esteem towards a healthier and happier community. I see the philanthropic sector as being such a valuable help, resource and guide in supporting people to realize these things.
TS: If we look at the data, food insecurity on First Nations reserves is rampant. Roughly half the households in First Nations and 75% of remote and Northern communities experienced food insecurity prior to COVID. When I think of philanthropy, I think of vertical smart farms and training First Nations locally so the entire community has access to fresh vegetables, in particular in the Northern Nations. I’ve seen the Opaskwayak Smart Farm just outside of The Pas, Manitoba, provide free locally grown produce. The highschool students work there, they give tours of the smart farm, they have community meetings where they decide what they grow and they receive the necessary training. Why can’t we have smart farms in more communities? Yes it’s an investment at first, but the benefit is huge: economic opportunities, increased health, minimal supply chain costs. Philanthropy should look into vertical farming in northern rural communities. If looking towards sustainability, set up a smart farm (partner with Arctic coop) in RankinInlet, Nunavut and they could provide the food by plane to surrounding communities. It makes a lot of sense but anything that makes sense for Indigenous communities doesn’t seem to make sense to anyone funding it, which is a huge barrier. Philanthropy needs to have an openness to experience, to new ways of doing things, to promote equal opportunities for ALL Canadians.
KM: What of the relationship between philanthropic organizations, research projects, and indigenous communities?
GB: First Nations communities have been heavily researched. However, the research results would leave the community and nothing would come of it. For instance, Indian Affairs would come in and gather information and the community would cooperate, under the auspices that there would be some form of funding, as they would see the need. However, the funding stayed the same for 100 years. The population grew, the rates of cancer, COPD, diabetes and prescription drug addiction increased. When philanthropy funds research, it would be important not to keep the results a secret. The research never did anything to improve or help the community or address these social issues. And that happened over and over again. Philanthropy has been missing all this time, so I’m excited to see the business model, it would definitely have to be a partnership with a goal-based vision. They would have to be on the same page as the community. When Indigenous communities are saying your name, they know about you, and that’s all it takes. Being on their radar says something for your presence in the room or in the community. If they’re talking about you, it’s a good thing.
KM: I would like to thank you both for sharing your stories, your experiences and your input on how philanthropy can move forward towards a more just society.
TS: I would like to thank you for allowing me to share my experiences, my research, ideas relating to the issues that I face not only as a researcher but also as a lifegiver and member of society also affected by COVID-19. Chi-miigwetch.
GB: Thank you so much. What I would like to say about what PhiLab is doing is that when you visibly include First Nations in the discussions, in the methods, in the recommendations and being asked for their advice, from experience, it speaks volumes and is a really good move.
This interview is part of our Special Edition COVID-19: Revealing Social Inequalities