By Molly Dawe
When the pandemic first began, many were quick to remark that we’re all in the same boat, that we’re all in this together. Though the intent of these notions may be in the right place, their impact surely isn’t. Saying that we are all in the same boat dismisses the intersectional nature of this pandemic. It grossly overlooks the role that race, gender, and socio-economic status play. While some have been given the luxury of extra free time during this pandemic, others are struggling to survive. While we may all be in the same storm, we are all in very different boats.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately impacted. The United Nations attributes this vulnerability to “factors such as…lack of access to effective monitoring and early-warning systems, and adequate health and social services.” All of which are rooted in settler colonialism and systemic racism.
This pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples isn’t a new phenomenon. Rather, Indigenous peoples have suffered wave after wave of infectious disease at the hands of European settlers for over 500 years. First it was smallpox, then the Spanish Flu, tuberculosis, H1N1, and now, COVID-19. Historically, the Canadian state has used disease as a weapon against Indigenous peoples. For instance, in the early 1800s, the American Fur Company steamboat, the St. Peter’s, knowingly carried the smallpox virus to Indigenous communities. Some early colonizers even brought vials of smallpox with them to threaten Indigenous lives. COVID-19’s impact on Indigenous communities is tied to this long, toxic history. It is the rule, not the exception.
In particular, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Indigenous peoples on reservations and in rural areas. This is due to “factors such as small dwellings, multigenerational living, and lack of access to preventative measures such as clean water, soap, and disinfectant.” Saying that we are all in the same boat assumes that we all have equal access to clean water, soap, and disinfectant – which we certainly do not. Currently there are more than 100 Indigenous communities in Canada without clean drinking water – a resource that many Canadians take for granted. While some have been afforded the luxury of taking up new hobbies and baking banana bread, others are fighting for their lives, daily.
Another issue facing Indigenous communities during this pandemic is data gaps. Recently, in a CTV News article, the Canadian Press Staff expressed that we need better data when it comes to COVID-19 and Indigenous communities. They explained that the data which has been gathered so far likely doesn’t tell the full story. And they’re right, it doesn’t, for a few reasons. Firstly, many Indigenous peoples deeply distrust researchers and secondly, the data which has been gathered only focuses on Indigenous peoples who live on reservations.
Indigenous peoples’ deep distrust of researchers stems from a long history of colonial exploitation under the guise of research. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Māori scholar and researcher, explains, “research is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.” For instance, the Canadian government experimented on Indigenous peoples in sanitoriums under the pretense of tuberculosis treatment. They used shock therapy and even removed an Indigenous man’s back rib and lung. This is only one of the many ways in which Canada has exploited and harmed Indigenous peoples in the name of research. So, it only makes sense that Indigenous peoples would harbour a deep distrust of COVID-19 researchers now. And, if there isn’t trust, it is impossible to collect valid data or help these communities.
Second is the issue of what data is being gathered. Indigenous Services Canada has reported 1728 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 for Indigenous peoples on reserve. The issue with COVID-19 data focusing primarily on reservations, is that it erases the experiences of Indigenous peoples living in urban areas. In 2016, it was reported that over half of Indigenous peoples in Canada live in urban centers. Not only does this COVID-19 data collection erase valid Indigenous experiences, it also produces invalid data by excluding half of the Indigenous population in Canada.
In order to collect data in a way that is helpful instead of harmful, researchers need to change their methods. First, they need to spend time cultivating meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities and second, they need to make sure that they are collecting valid data samples that account for Indigenous peoples on reserve, in rural areas, and in urban centres.
The next time you think to yourself that we are all in the same boat, please take a moment to reflect. The idea that we are all experiencing the same thing during this pandemic is deeply disconnected from the reality of COVID-19. While some have had the privilege of self-reflection and reconnection during this pandemic, others have been placed in a state of constant crisis. Remember – we might all be in the same storm, but we are all in very different boats.
Molly Dawe is a fourth-year Communications and Media Studies student, minoring in Indigenous Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. She is a settler and guest on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin Nation. Her research focuses on the intersection of Indigenous land-based resistance movements, mainstream news media representations, and Indigenous art.