Indigenous Peoples are not Canada’s Charity Case

Published On: May 2020Categories: COVID-19 Response, Editorials, Policy DevelopmentTags:


Jessica Kolopenuk, Ph.D.

Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Assistant Professor

Twitter: @JessKolopenuk, @indigenous_sts


Among the faculty and staff at the Faculty of Native Studies (University of Alberta), there is no question that Pembina Hall – the historic building that houses our historic faculty – is haunted. The Northeast corridor where I typically work, is home to the energetic remains of ones lost during the last pandemic on this campus. The ghostly reminders of the 1918 Spanish Flu implore us to consider that the present coronavirus pandemic is not unprecedented. Indigenous worldviews that consider the spirited afterlives of previous pandemics offer valuable knowledge for science and health policy and for healing practices.
Historic epidemics – smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, influenza – have reshaped the biological and political terrains of territories. They were and are part and parcel of colonial settlement around the world. The health care system and public health policy field in this country have been created in mutual relation to a Canadian political project. Canada, including its sovereignty and institutions, have grown at the expense of Indigenous governance. Indigenous peoples know this. This is why, globally, in the course of this pandemic, Indigenous nations are asserting their right to self-determination through their planning and preparedness measures. These include, the development of culturally and linguistically relevant pandemic responses, assertions of regional sovereignty, and appeals to treaty rights to pandemic-related health care and resources. As Indigenous nations plan, prepare and act, there remain tensions between Canadian and Indigenous jurisdictions and their approaches to pandemic governance. It has been argued that the Covid-19 crisis is intensifying pre-existing colonial relationships whereas historic epidemics helped solidify colonial governance. For Indigenous peoples, risk associated with Covid-19 is high, but this risk extends beyond the potential for high morbidity and mortality rates. The risks faced by Indigenous nations also include ongoing threats to their self-determination and governance.
The current pandemic has emerged as the fields of science, politics, economy, law, and health continue to be defined by power imbalances in which Indigenous peoples are not often in control of the policies that affect them. As a result, pandemics and epidemics have always also been syndemic with the pathological spread of colonization. Syndemic theory, approached through a Native or Indigenous Studies lens, understands the imbalanced relationships between Indigenous, federal, and provincial governments, as being a sick system. No clearer is this pathology evident than on the Indigenous Services Canada: Coronavirus and Indigenous Communities webpage where instructions are featured prominently for hand washing in communities where there is no clean or running water. The fact that these instructions are necessary, is a visceral reminder of the structural inequities in Canada. To some degree, policy-makers are seeking to address structural factors that contribute to high disease and disease complication burdens on Indigenous peoples. The efficacy of such measures is still unknown.
In recent years, biomedical research and clinical practice aimed at addressing health disparities have offered hope for reconciliation. When political relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada are defined by reconciliation, morality becomes a yardstick for measuring the strength of such relationships. However, the moral pursuit of reconciliation has done more to secure and strengthen Canada’s own sovereignty and control of the nation, its citizens, institutions, and of the land than it has for transforming what remains a colonial political relationship. As a result, the governance of public health (including, the jurisdictional interactions between Indigenous and Canadian governments) is not simply a matter of morality, nor is it a humanitarian or charity project. Rather, Indigenous health governance, like that related to the current pandemic, is a matter of long standing political and legal relationships between nations. This is about power and power sharing. The ways that the current pandemic is being governed as a federal and provincial problem without deep coordination with Indigenous nations reinforces the colonial tug-of-war over governance that is constitutive of Canada’s liberal democracy. This must change. Indigenous knowledges and worldviews that hold space for principles of shared governance; and that make decisions across multiple generations forward and back can help change the course of this pandemic.

Dr. Jessica Kolopenuk (Cree, Peguis First Nation) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. She is a co-founder and co-lead of the Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society Research and Training Program (Indigenous STS), which supports capacities of Indigenous peoples to govern science and technology projects affecting them. Kolopenuk is also the co-founder and co-lead of the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics Canada (SING Canada), and has more recently been recruited as an instructor for Science Outside the Lab North (SOtLNorth). In 2018, she won the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s Youth Award of Excellence. With Indigenous governance held at the core of her work, Dr. Kolopenuk’s research and policy advising address what technoscientific knowledge means for Indigenous peoples and, also, what Indigenous knowledges can mean for technoscience and policy fields.