COVID-19 Community Response Fund providing vital funds to support Indigenous youth and families in Calgary

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing vulnerabilities that several populations in our communities already face. Beyond the obvious health impacts, people whose circumstances and livelihoods are threatened by the abrupt halt of work and income are faced with deepening challenges around food insecurity, mental illness, domestic violence and isolation. To put it simply, the circumstances surrounding the pandemic can make a bad situation worse.

Special focus should be paid to Indigenous populations, who have been identified as a vulnerable group. Those on-reserve face unique challenges during COVID-19 such as geographic isolation, lack of access to medical care, and inadequate housing conditions, which can lead to higher rates of virus transmission and spread.

Indigenous people living in urban areas are also at serious risk, especially from an economic perspective. Before the virus hit, about 25 per cent of Indigenous people living in Canadian cities were living in poverty, without access to the basic necessities of life. For children and youth, that number jumps to 30 per cent, and increases if they live in a single-parent household (in which case, 51 per cent of kids live in poverty), all according to StatsCan.

With support from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, USAY helps Indigenous youth and families meet their basic needs

With up to half of urban Indigenous children and youth experiencing economic inequality in their everyday lives, the situation became even more dire once the pandemic hit. Recognizing this, various Indigenous-serving agencies applied for support from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund to secure resources to support Indigenous children and youth. One of the agencies that received funding was the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY), which aims to help Indigenous youth live healthy and successful lives here in Calgary.

Two girls standing at a front door holding signs that read: USAY Rocks.

LeeAnne Ireland, Executive Director of USAY, said she knew the $50,000 in funding would make the biggest difference for families if they themselves could choose to purchase what they needed most

“Everyone, not just Indigenous youth, are in uncertain and desperate times right now,” says LeeAnne. “USAY knew we had to provide flexibility to families and allow them to be self-determining about what was needed and important. We understood that they needed support, but couldn’t define what that was, so we elected to provide the most open and flexible support we could.”

To that end, USAY purchased $50,000 in gift cards to Walmart, where everything from clothing to diapers to food could be acquired. The gift cards were then distributed to more than 130 Indigenous youth—and by extension, nearly 600 family members—to help connect them with their basic needs. Families were surprised and thankful to receive the gift cards, describing them as “lifesaving.”

“I am extremely grateful for the gift card and USAY’s support,” says Pam Smith, who accessed help through USAY. “Without the gift card I wouldn’t have food for the month.”

Several others echoed Pam’s sentiments, saying that without the support, they wouldn’t have been able to source adequate or nutritious food. And Brendan McNab, who also received a gift card through USAY, appreciated that he was able to prioritize the items his family needs, like diapers and baby supplies.

Brendon sitting in char, smiling, holding gift cards from wal-mart

“The gift cards have really helped while I’m laid off from my job,” says Brendan. “It allows me to support my little son and get things we need to make this time a bit easier.”

Additional local agencies have received funding to support Indigenous youth and families through the COVID-19 Community Response Fund. For example, Miskanawah provided families with food, diapers, wipes, formula, and toys to assist in children’s development, while the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary and Awo Taan Healing Lodge Society provided families with urgent support for basic needs.

Read about all of our investments to local agencies and how they’re making a difference.


United Way works to improve Indigenous lives year-round

We are committed to diversity and inclusion as a core value. For more than two decades, we have been working with and investing in agencies and initiatives that support the well-being of urban Indigenous people in Calgary and area. In 2015, we launched our Natoo’si Indigenous Healing and Well-being Initiative to strengthen Indigenous cultural identity and engage individuals and families on a healing path. And in 2019, with the support of Elders, United Way finalized its new organizational Indigenous Strategy, Akak’stiman, which reflects our commitment to building relationships with Indigenous people by recognizing and honouring both Western and Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing without imposing on one another.

Learn more about our Indigenous strategy.