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Systemic discrimination against Indigenous women magnified during COVID-19, Bennett says

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COVID-19 has magnified the effects of systemic discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada, said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett at a virtual summit the federal government organized to discuss a feminist response to the pandemic.

Bennett said Canada’s colonial legacy has played a role in worse outcomes for Indigenous women.

She said that includes more layoffs, a lack of child care and a spike in family violence.

Read more: Systemic racism in Canada’s health care and how it affects vaccine rollout

“We know that equality cannot be achieved by simply ensuring everyone has the same opportunities,” she said.

“We speak of income gaps between men and women, but those gaps exist between different demographics of women as well. That’s why any economic recovery plan for women must consider different lenses and perspectives in Canada.”

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Odelle Pike, president of the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network, says having to remain isolated and apart from extended families has affected Indigenous women’s physical, mental and spiritual health.

She said resources to deal with mental-health problems are limited, since many Indigenous communities are small and remote.

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“We do use a lot of our traditional ways of healing, like sharing circles, talking circles, healing circles and support circles,” she said.

Pike said violence against women, especially domestic violence, has intensified since the pandemic by about 60 per cent, and many women don’t feel safe to report being physically abused to the RCMP.

“We have about 80 per cent of Indigenous people in our area. … We have no safe houses for women to go to. Our closest safe house is three hours away,” she said.

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“We had women refusing to go to the larger centres for cancer treatment because they didn’t have money for rent or for transportation.”

Read more: Releasing more data around First Nations COVID-19 cases won’t combat racism: B.C. officials

Bennett said the government is working on a plan to address the gender pay gap that contributes to women’s poverty and health concerns and raises barriers to leaving abusive relationships.

“We want to see a truly intersectional recovery for Indigenous women in this country,” she said.

Middle-Class Prosperity Minister Mona Fortier announced Monday a women-only task force to help advise policy-makers on the economic recovery ahead of the spring budget.

The former chief executive officer of Indspire, Canada’s largest Indigenous-led charity, said the government’s commitments are good but real action is needed.

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“I’m going to look carefully at the mandate to see where the action and intervention points are,” Roberta Jamieson said during the virtual summit.

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“When are we going to deliver in a timely fashion?”

She said although the government promised back in 2015 that all long-term drinking water advisories for Indigenous communities would be lifted by the end of this month, at least 40 Indigenous communities still don’t have safe drinking water.

“I don’t think ‘building back better’ cuts it, frankly, because that phrase assumes that the status quo was OK. Well, you won’t find any Indigenous community who think that,” she said.

“We’ve got to get not the band aids, no more studies. We got to get to the structural and systemic inequality that the majority, that are women, are bearing the brunt of in our communities.”

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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