The effects of the COVID-19 public health crisis are being felt on a global scale, but it’s even more difficult for our most vulnerable citizens. This includes the Indigenous communities in Calgary and area, which represent a disproportionate amount of our community’s vulnerable population.

In early March 2020, the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary (AFCC) started receiving an overwhelming number of phone calls from community members looking for support to deal with the effects of COVID-19. As a well-known social support centre in the Indigenous community, the AFCC plays a significant role in providing supports and services to Indigenous, children, youth, and families, Elders and seniors, and homeless individuals.

Indigenous families in crisis

The calls that came in were both heart-breaking and urgent. A mother in a household of 13 family members expressed concern in being able to provide for her family as most stores have imposed a maximum limit on essential items. She has no choice but to go grocery shopping multiple times a week, putting herself and her family at risk.

Another single mother of five started panicking when she started to experience flu-like symptoms. She was scared not only that her children would get sick, but that she was going to be unable to continue providing for them. She did not want endanger other people by going to a grocery store while sick, but she couldn’t allow her children to go hungry.

It became clear to Shane Gauthier, CEO of the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary, that vulnerable and at-risk individuals have access to vital emergency resources during this difficult time. “We knew we had to act fast and put together a task force to take care of our most vulnerable community members and I knew we couldn’t do it alone. We reached out to collaborate with our partners like United Way of Calgary and Area, agencies, and stakeholders to work together in a coordinated way to ensure the COVID-19 Task Force could make the most impact. It was incredible how fast we mobilized; a true testament of the deep commitment we all have for our community.”

Fresh food for families

Aboriginal friendship center of Calgary

Aboriginal friendship center of Calgary

The Indigenous COVID-19 Task Force assembled in mid-March 2020 with the main intention of providing basic needs to urban vulnerable Indigenous community members. It was clear to the task force that the quality of donated non-perishables may not offer enough nutrition to community members. Thanks to funding from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, a joint effort of United Way and The City of Calgary, the task force was able to assemble food hampers with fresh vegetables and meats.

In the first few weeks, the task force delivered 500 food hampers with the support from the United Way of Calgary and Area, Pembina Pipeline Corporation, and the First Nations Health Consortium, a healthcare resource and referral for Alberta First Nations children and youth. This allowed the task force to deliver over 200 emergency packages to single mothers and their children at the Awo Taan Healing Lodge.

Andie W.L. was overwhelmed with joy and relief when she received one of the food hampers. “I want to thank [the task force] for being so compassionate in delivering our hamper! I was happy to see spaghetti sauce, canned meat, Quaker oats, cup of soups, and even our favorite beef jerky sticks. Food that I wouldn’t normally buy! It is definitely a real treat, to see these items in the hamper.”

Relieving helplessness in the most vulnerable

The task force also knew the Indigenous homeless population was especially at high risk for contracting the virus. Although people who identify as Indigenous make up only 3 per cent of the general population of Calgary, they represent more than 20 per cent of the homeless population in our city. Some struggle with mental health concerns and addiction on top of poverty and homelessness, which make the realities of COVID-19 and quarantine even harder to manage. The task force made it a priority to raise awareness and educate on COVID-19 transmission, symptoms, and taking preventative measures. They provided shelters with printed resources, and continue to collaborate with facility coordinators on how to effectively relay critical information on the COVID-19 safety procedures. Emergency hampers with food and other necessities were delivered to those most in need.

“The tears of gratitude and kind words of appreciation from the rough sleepers and regular community members receiving hampers cruising around downtown has got to be the most heart-warming feeling because I feel that they are the ones that need it most right now. They are beyond grateful. Their faces light up and they can’t thank you enough,” said Nicole Wolfleg, Housing Case Manager at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary.

Indigenous community packing food for Covid-19 relief efforts

Providing basic needs to the most vulnerable is a priority. But the task force also recognizes the health risks associated with loneliness, and the severe effects it can have on an individual’s or their family’s mental health. To help alleviate the emotional stress of isolation, the task force put together special non-essential hampers, with board games and books, to keep families connected during this difficult time. They task force is also coordinating cultural support and mental health referral programs to support anyone who may find themselves vulnerable during these difficult and uncertain times.

Lori Johnstone, the Indigenous COVID-19 Task Force Coordinator says collaboration is key to making the biggest impact. “As the need grows in the community, we hope to expand our partnerships with other agencies so that we can better collaborate and coordinate our support services and come up with more timely solutions.”

For updates, please visit: afccalgary.org, or the Aboriginal Friendship Centre of Calgary Facebook and Instagram pages. To get in touch with Lori Johnstone, please call 403-370-6422. For Elder cultural support, please call Dakota Eaglewoman at 403-801-7482.

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If you need support during this difficult time, please call 211. 211 is available 24/7 by phone – simply dial or text 211 – and online chat is available daily from noon – 8 p.m. by visiting ab.211.ca. The service is free, confidential, and available in over 170 languages.

To find out how United Way is supporting Calgary and area during the COVID-19 pandemic, please click here.