July 8, 2022

How do you wash your hands without safe drinking water?

COVID-19 pandemic creates barriers for First Nations communities
Jessica Lardeur
Jessica Lardeur studied the impact of COVID on Indigenous communities. Michelle Crossland

During the COVID-19 pandemic, phrases like, “Wash your hands,” and, “Make sure you isolate” became mainstream. But how do you wash your hands if you don’t have clean running water? How do you isolate when living spaces are overcrowded?

With both of these tasks becoming impossible during COVID, Faculty of Arts student Jessica Lardeur, under the guidance of Dr. Cora Voyageur, PhD, professor in the Department of Sociology, decided to focus her honour’s thesis on the impact that COVID-19 has had on Indigenous communities and how they have adapted to the situation under ominous conditions.

“COVID-19 impacted everyone around the world, but it severely impacted Indigenous communities,” says Lardeur.

Indigenous people already face a lot of hardship in Canada due to colonialism that is still at work today, and COVID made it worse.

Lardeur’s research indicated that progress that was made to overcome systematic barriers in Indigenous communities was hampered. For example, the headway that was made on females entering the workforce was dampened by the fact that women had to stay home to look after sick family members. This added to the existing issue of Indigenous women overcoming issues of unemployment and earning money, which ties into autonomy and self-determination.

“There is a high percentage of female-headed households in Indigenous communities,” says Lardeur. “When single mothers are taking care of sick kids due to COVID, it means they can’t be at work earning money.”

Critical issues: Drinking water, living space

Another critical issue is safe drinking water.

“A lot of communities don’t have safe drinking water,” says Lardeur. “Long-term drinking water advisories already existed, and COVID created delays. There is still no clear plan for when they will be lifted.”

They also found that because some communities exist on rocky areas or in regions with a high water table, the chance for families to live in a house with a basement and more livable space doesn’t exist.

“Families are larger in Indigenous communities, but a four- or five-bedroom house with a basement would be rare on a reserve community because of the rocky landscape or high watershed conditions. Some families live in multi-generational situations which means large numbers of people living in one house.

"Commitment to family is a core value in the Indigenous community. Everyone has a home, even if it means overcrowded living spaces,” says Voyageur.

More needs to be done

COVID presented many challenges, but First Nations communities are resilient and adapted quickly. Communities were locked down, and everyone was vaccinated with extra vaccine doses being donated to nearby non-Indigenous towns.

Entire houses were set aside for people who had COVID, so they could isolate, and community members took care of them, but this created more housing shortages. In addition, programs were set up to deliver groceries to homes. At Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, the community came together and organized drive-by prepared meal pick-ups. 

Despite this resilience, Lardeur believe more needs to be done.

“There needs to be way more support for legislation to overcome these issues that create structural barriers. The pandemic is still very present for Indigenous communities, and it’s harder for the community to get back on track due to the remoteness. They are feeling the long-term impacts and the return to normal needs a lot of additional support.”