Indigenous youth in Alberta hit hard by pandemic measures, review panel says

After six months of collecting facts and personal anecdotes, a committee formed by the Government of Alberta has concluded that Indigenous children are among the vulnerable youth hardest hit by measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic .

“What we have continued to hear time and time again is that for some of the most at risk and vulnerable young people, the pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted the gaps that already existed or the challenges these children and their children face. families may have faced this before, “said Rebecca Schultz, Minister of Children’s Services, Co-Chair of the Child and Youth Welfare Review Panel.

“The pandemic has further highlighted the negative impact of systemic racism and inequalities on the health and development of children and youth,” said the report released last Friday.

Schultz and Calgary Southeast MPP Matt Jones co-chaired the seven-member panel that was appointed by the UCP Alberta government in May to assess and make recommendations on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on those under 19.

Due to overcrowded housing, underlying health issues and other risks, many indigenous communities have set up roadblocks to lock down and prevent outsiders from accessing their communities and restricting movement of their members.

“They reduced the risk, but in doing so, they cut them off from those social relationships and inter-community activities so important to Indigenous groups,” said Dr. Kelly Schwartz, associate professor, School and Applied Psychology program at the child at the University of Calgary.

Social isolation, according to the report, was already a long-term problem on many First Nations reserves.

And when a wide range of education and health services, including mental health services, came online, indigenous youth were more affected.

“One of the things was – and we addressed this issue in our recommendations as well – is that so much has been uploaded, but it didn’t mean all communities, especially as we entered northern communities and some of our First Nations communities, that they had reliable access to the Internet and therefore, when it comes to learning, (when) it comes to seeking health supports or mental health support, that was a big part of it, ”said Schwartz.

From May to September, the expert panel received comments from over 9,000 people, including 524 young people. While the review does not detail the number of these Aboriginal youth, it does indicate that of just over 7,000 caregivers or parents who also responded, 270 were Aboriginal.

Although 270 is a small sample, the report says, these adult respondents rated the impact of the pandemic on their children “as more negative” than the rating given by non-Indigenous parents.

“While the pandemic has been difficult for all young people, we have noticed that certain vulnerable groups are the hardest hit. Many children, especially those in rural and northern communities, faced additional challenges related to housing issues, food insecurity, lack of access to technology to help e-learning and caregivers. who were overwhelmed by their limits, ”said Schultz.

Schwartz admitted that the food safety issue had “really surprised … and disappointed” him.

“This has an impact on the child’s ability to learn, on his ability to develop. We saw that it was quite important. Children don’t exist in a vacuum, and so does their family, ”he said.

“When we talk about accessibility issues, they were deeper in rural and remote Alberta and First Nations, which is something we definitely need to work on as a government,” Jones said.

The report contains 10 recommendations, which aim to address a variety of service gaps; examine existing obstacles; collect “full data” to understand negative impacts on education; strengthen supports for adults working with youth; and service delivery in a culturally appropriate manner.

Schultz stressed that the implementation of these recommendations must be carried out in a targeted manner and addressed in several ministries.

She noted that measures have already been taken by the province.

Last week, the provincial and federal governments announced a $ 300 million investment to expand Internet connectivity in northern, rural and Indigenous communities.

In July, the province announced it would spend up to $ 7.3 million over three years to expand its network of youth mental health centers.

In May, the government made $ 45 million available to schools to meet the numeracy and literacy needs of students in Grades 1 to 3.

In April 2020, the province announced $ 5 million to support food banks and community organizations in their food supply efforts to address food insecurity.

Schultz said the government’s work will continue as it examines the report’s recommendations and develops an action plan to “make bigger systemic changes.”

As of yet, there are no dollar figures attached to the implementation of the action plan.

“As the government works on our action plan, we’re going to come together, take the time to get it right, work with a number of different departments, take a look at what’s going on right now and to where the mismatch might be, then come back with a plan of action. At this point, we’ll probably be in a better position to talk about the real dollars that are needed here, ”said Schultz, who added that the pandemic is not yet over.

She said she expects a detailed action plan to be presented to Albertans by the spring.

“It’s not just a report that sits on somebody’s desk and then we move on. It’s definitely the last thing we want, ”said Schultz.

Carole Carifelle-Brzezicki, Director, Indigenous Health, North, Alberta Health Services, also served on the Child and Youth Welfare Review Committee.