Where is the financial safety net for Six Nations businesses?

Six Nations is facing a situation we have never confronted in all of history. A pandemic of unknown duration has forced the shut down of our local economy.

The tobacco industry at Six Nations has never experienced a full shut down of production and a complete halt of retail customers from attending shops in the community.

And although the province of Ontario estimates that tobacco from First Nations represents less than 8% of all tobacco manufacturing in the province – it provides a large part of the income holding up First Nations families in the area.

In 2010, an economic impact study on the tobacco industry showed that close to 10,000 First Nations people have jobs in the tobacco industry — predominantly in Ontario and Quebec. At that same time nearly a quarter of Kahnawake’s entire population was estimated to be employed in tobacco earning around $700 a week as part of the informal economy.

The term “informal economy” is the only real floating umbrella term out there to use. What I mean to say is that there is an informal economy on-reserve that pays employees “under the table” not to avoid responsibilities but because the employment and tax reporting rules for businesses on reserve have never been clarified.

Several businesses, not just tobacco, on Six Nations operate this way and have for generations. Not to mention the throngs of indigenous artists and cultural teachers whose living depends on honorarium received through the gig economy from speaking engagements, dance demonstrations and art lessons.

In addition to those workers – a lot of Six Nations businesses are family-run human service providers doing things like home repair, landscaping, catering, auto repair, hairdressing or tattoo services. Those service oriented professions will be hit extremely hard as physical distancing prevents them from safely accessing the means that they provide for their families.

Six Nations small businesses, combined with the tobacco industry are absolutely the backbone of the local industry. Small business owners on Six Nations, some of whom don’t pay into colonial structures as a political choice, are good people. They are community minded – often being the first to respond when community crisis hits by making donations or volunteering to help families in need.

So what will the economic fallout from this pandemic and community shut down be on Six Nations families and businesses? And what are community leaders doing to advocate to the federal and provincial government to assure there are avenues of security for band members on Six Nations?

Six Nations of the Grand River’s Elected Council has been tight-lipped about responding to these kinds of questions. Since the beginning of the pandemic announcement there have been no updates on whether there will be targeted financial relief for on-reserve businesses.

The federal government has released some funding programming for reserves. The Indigenous Community Support Fund allocated $305 million dollars to help indigenous communities. However that money will be divided between First Nations reserves, Metis and Inuit communities, and be the lone indigenous pandemic response fund for all regional, urban and off-reserve indigenous organizations.

The most up to date statistics we have counting indigenous people within the borders of Canada show are 634 First Nations communities representing about 977,000 people, 51 Inuit communities representing about 65,000 people and an estimated 28 Metis communities totalling about 580,000.

It kind of seems like we’re getting the bwooty end of the stick here. The funding is already divided by the federal government: $215 million going to First Nations, $$45 million for the Inuit and $30 million to Metis communities. Another $15 million goes toward Indigenous organizations in regional, urban and off-reserve programs. That works out to $51 bucks per Metis person, $672 per Inuit person and $220 per First Nations person in Canada.

Keep in mind none of that goes directly to people. It will be funnelled through organizations to pay for things like additional mental health staff, meals on wheels for elders and other program-based help that is specifically directed at indigenous communities. Needed for sure – but not enough to address the real needs that indigenous people are facing in the midst of a pandemic that has halted life as it was.

This is where our community needs to think creatively. We must press our leaders to advocate at the federal and provincial levels for the real and immediate needs of hard-working families on the territory who have invested in the local economy for generations.

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