Indigenous governments and organizations are major employers in the Northwest Territories, but whether they’ll have access to new federal relief programs meant to help employers and workers affected by COVID-19 is unclear.

Judith Rae is a lawyer at the law firm OKT. She specializes in Indigenous governance and has spent time in the N.W.T. 

Rae joined Loren McGinnis on CBC’s The Trailbreaker Wednesday morning to talk about financial support that may or may not be available to Indigenous governments and organizations.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What COVID-19 relief programs are available to Indigenous governments and organizations?

Let me do a little snapshot. For people who’ve lost their paid work, a very broad-based program that came out this week is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). 

If they’ve lost work on a permanent layoff, or a temporary layoff, or they’re on a leave for medical or other reasons due to COVID-19, they’re likely going to be eligible for the CERB. That will be true no matter what kind of employer they have, be it an Indigenous government, an Indigenous business or organization, or something else entirely. 

Lawyer Judith Rae says if someone ‘lost work on a permanent layoff, or a temporary layoff, or they’re on a leave for medical or other reasons due to COVID-19, they’re likely going to be eligible’ for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit – no matter their employer. (Submitted by Judith Rae)

That’s the easy part. The more complicated part is support for the employer. 

The federal government has rolled out the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which has been directed mostly at the non-governmental and business sectors. 

I don’t think most Indigenous governments will be eligible because there’s an exception for public bodies. The idea is that most governments are probably not going to be losing substantial revenue. 

It does say, though, that corporations, both for-profit and non-profit, could be eligible if they’re losing revenue, and some Indigenous governments that are incorporated. There are different kinds of governing bodies.

There’s still some grey area there to me. We’ll know a bit more when the new legislation comes out, likely next week. 

The other grey area is around businesses that may be affiliated with a government at the regional or local level. I’m not 100 per cent sure yet how that will interact with some of the details in terms of eligibility.

There remains so much uncertainty. Is it worth naming programs that Indigenous organizations are ineligible for? 

I’m not going to get into giving any legal advice over the radio, there’s still too much of a moving target here.

For a lot of governments, their first priority right now is the public health aspect, and dealing with the crisis and the emergency. Now there is support for that, but whether it’s adequate, different people may have different opinions.

What are the most significant challenges ahead for Indigenous governments and organizations that wish to access these funds?

There’s mention in the material about public bodies not being eligible, so we’ll need to know a bit more about what that means. 

The other challenge is people are just struggling in so many different ways right now. There are so many demands in terms of services, health and just supporting people that applying for funding of all kinds is really challenging right now.

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