Grand Challenges Canada

Sara Wolfe, Director, Indigenous Innovation Initiative
Grand Challenges Canada
July 7, 2020



Ahnii. Bonjour. Good afternoon, Madam Chair and committee members.

My name is Sara Wolfe and I am the Director of the Indigenous Innovation Initiative at Grand Challenges Canada.

Thank you for inviting us to speak today on the gendered impacts of the COVID‑19 pandemic in Canada.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the long history and enduring presence of Indigenous peoples, including First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples across Turtle Island.

As an Anishnawbe-kwe with strong connections to Brunswick House First Nation in Northern Ontario, I would like to acknowledge the territory of the Anishnawbe Algonquin people of “Shabot Obaadjiwan”, where I am currently a visitor during this very warm “raspberry moon”—the moon when great changes begin.

I particularly look forward to your questions regarding my statement.

For the last 10 years, Grand Challenges Canada has been dedicated to supporting Bold Ideas with Big Impact. Funded by the Government of Canada and other partners, we support innovators who are closest to some of the most pressing challenges in the world. The bold ideas that Grand Challenges Canada invests in integrates science and technology, social, business—and also now Indigenous knowledge—to save and improve lives for people in Canada and in low- and middle-income countries.

Our organization has supported over 1,300 innovations in 106 countries. We estimate that these innovations have the potential to save up to 1.8 million lives and improve up to 64 million lives by 2030.

We’ve been listening to our innovators, partners, and community members for the past four months to hear how COVID-19 has impacted their lives.

The gendered impact of COVID-19

Around the world, this pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities—particularly for poor and racialized people—and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, which are in turn intensifying the impacts of the pandemic.

Disheartening evidence of even deeper impacts for those at the intersection of multiple vulnerabilities, like women living in poverty, is also emerging. An intersectional understanding is what we need if we are to recover from COVID-19 in a good way, in Canada and around the world.

Indeed, as outlined in the United Nations’ policy brief from April 9th, titled The Impact of COVID-19 on Women, across every sphere—from health to the economy, and security to social protection—the impacts of COVID-19 are worsened for women and girls simply by virtue of their gender:

  • Increases in unpaid care work;
  • Reallocation of resources and/or even blunt attacks on sexual and reproductive health services;
  • Increases in gender-based violence; and
  • The poorer you started out, the worse it has gotten.

At home in Canada, we may have the tendency to think that things are worse in the ‘outside world’. But the situation here, for many, is not actually much different.

The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse individuals in Canada

Today, I appear before the Committee to discuss the gendered impacts of the pandemic on Indigenous peoples in Canada, what the Indigenous Innovation Initiative is doing about it, and how much more there is that we could do.

My sisters have historically experienced higher burdens of poverty, discrimination, criminalization, and violence. There are a plethora of reports on the gendered impacts of being an Indigenous women, girl or gender diverse person in Canada, including pivotal findings from The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – Reclaiming Power and Place.

The Final Report confirmed that domestic violence, human trafficking and health-related concerns were already significant issues for them—even before COVID-19.

I sincerely hope that everyone on this committee is already very familiar with the report and its corresponding Calls for Justice. The Indigenous community awaits the government’s action plan.

But new reports have also recently surfaced about the gendered impacts of COVID-19 for Indigenous peoples.

Last month, the Native Women’s Association of Canada published an online survey of 750 Indigenous women and gender-diverse people and noted a “deeply concerning spike” in the number of Indigenous women facing violence during this time of “shelter in place”, with almost 1 in 5 reporting a violent incident in the past 3 months. In fact, of the Indigenous women surveyed more were concerned about violence than the virus itself. Another key finding was that the financial impact of COVID-19 is strongly correlated to violence against Indigenous women.

Also in June, Pam Palmater, Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, wrote in her article titled Gendered Pandemic Response Needed to Addressing Specific Needs of Indigenous Women that, “Canada’s failure to use a gender lens on its pandemic measures ignores the many ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting women in general. […] Now consider the dual disadvantage of Indigenous women who are also forced to navigate in an ‘infrastructure of violence’.” The article gives evidence of several ways Indigenous women and gender diverse people have been disproportionately impacted, and why there is an urgent need for dedicated pandemic planning for this demographic.

In a previous life I worked as a midwife with urban Indigenous families for nearly two decades. My friends and former health care colleagues are reporting that street-level impacts—opioid overdoses, untreated STIs, assaults, trafficking, street work, homelessness, mental health, unplanned pregnancies—are all increasing, particularly for Indigenous people.

Towards sustainable solutions

To maintain the status quo means the gaps will continue to widen and that Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people will continue to fall deeper. But this doesn’t have to be so.

The root cause of the gendered, and racialized, pandemic inequities that we are seeing, are engrained much deeper than extra masks and hand sanitizer. Attention needs to be focused on creating sustainable, long-term solutions.

This is an opportunity for Canada to commit to a gendered response—one that includes a specifically tailored approach for Indigenous women and gender diverse people’s needs, and which takes into account the context of racialized violence and poverty.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises play a key role in the Canadian economy.

Women—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—are the foundation of families and communities.

Between 2013 and 2017, small- and medium-sized enterprises made up 85% of the net job creation in the private sector. And in 2017, SMEs employed almost 90% of the private sector workforce in Canada.

But only 1.4% were Indigenous owned, despite being 5% of the National population. And only 25% of that 1.4%, was majority Indigenous woman owned.

For Indigenous women and gender diverse people, economic reconciliation is critical to their emergence; and that will require sustainable investments in dedicated economic recovery efforts.

Imagine what would happen if as part of the COVID-19 economic recovery plan, we invested in Indigenous women and gender-diverse individuals so they could position themselves to thrive when the Canadian and global economies re-emerge.

Seeded with $10 million in matching funds from the Government of Canada’s Department of Women and Gender Equality, we have started this work.

We were overwhelmed by the results of our recent call for proposals—to accelerate Gender Equality through Indigenous innovation and social entrepreneurship. We received 238 applications across business, health, social, tech, environmental and cultural innovation—unfortunately, we will only be able to fund the top 3% in this round (about 5-7 projects).

Think about the potential impact for Indigenous women and girls once the best ones are operational!

Think about what the potential impact for Indigenous women and girls could be if we were able to fund the top 10%!

What if we invested even more in Indigenous innovation using a gender lens? To give them—and the next generation (this is after all helping them to also take care of their families)—an even better chance to reach their fullest potential.

What if we started off by offsetting emergency relief funds and longer-term unemployment expenses for Indigenous folks who have lost their jobs because of the falling economy. I know a group of Indigenous innovators that have some awesome ideas, lots of support from their communities, and tons of grit.


It is crucial that any COVID-19 recovery plan, globally and within Canada, places women, girls and gender-diverse individuals—their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection—at their centre if it is to have the necessary impact.

But this recovery plan is also an opportunity, an opportunity to invest in equality from a gender and an anti-oppression lens. Let’s give the world more of the Canada that we all aspire to, one where everyone has the opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Meewgetch. Thank you. Merci.

With that, Madam Chair, I would be happy to answer your questions.