British Columbia

Liberal MLA backtracks on social media comments criticizing vaccine rollout for First Nations

Liberal MLA John Rustad is backtracking after making comments questioning why Indigenous members of his communtiy were receiving COVID-19 vaccines ahead of older members of the population — saying his concern is around B.C.'s age-based immunization plan.

John Rustad has since said his criticism is directed towards B.C.'s age-based vaccine plan

Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad held the role of minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation under B.C.'s previous Liberal government. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Liberal MLA John Rustad is backtracking after making comments questioning why Indigenous members of his community are receiving COVID-19 vaccines ahead of older members of the population.

Rustad, who serves as MLA for the central Interior riding of Nechako Lakes, posted comments on Facebook that said, in part, "who makes the decision to continue to vaccinate an 18 year old in the same community while not vaccinating a 90 year old with significant health challenges?" referring to young people in the Nak'azdli community near Fort St. James, B.C.

Several people commented on the post, which has since been deleted, saying that Indigenous populations in B.C. have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and often have poor access to health-care. Others posted racist comments about Indigenous people.

Rustad responded in a comment, writing "to the people who are trying to make this a race issue, I'm sorry you see it that way. I have no issue with the vaccine treatment, the increased focus on First Nation communities (especially those that have been impacted) and the general plan for non-Indigenous communities."

The First Nations Leadership council responded to Rustad's statements in a letter to the Liberal Party, writing they were "disappointed and alarmed at the barrage of misinformation, division and discrimination."

"Mr. Rustad's comments not only cast unwarranted doubt on a vaccination rollout system [...] They perpetuate a truly destructive and colonial narrative that effaces the unique challenges and pressures Indigenous communities are facing while alienating them and positioning them as outsiders," said the letter.

Rustad questions age-based rollout

Rustad's office has since released a statement saying, "I fully support the work to vaccinate First Nations communities and, as a former minister of aboriginal relations, understand all too well the challenges faced in places like Nak'azdli. I have also condemned the racist comments directed at Indigenous peoples across the province around the issue."

"My questions are to John Horgan and Adrian Dix — explain why there was a sudden and abrupt change in the government's age-based, immunization policy that results in young people getting vaccinated before older people in the same community. I have raised this issue with Dr. Henry and the health authority and look forward to receiving an explanation so there is greater clarity on this issue."

Rustad declined a CBC News request for an interview.

Earlier in the week B.C. announced details of its plan to immunize more than 4 million members of the general public. 

Phase 1 of the vaccination plan included people in remote Indigenous communities, and Phase 2 of the plan included seniors over 80 and Indigenous seniors over 65 and Indigenous elders. Phase 3 of the plan, slated from April to June, included members of the general public aged 60 to 79.

Cheryl Casimer, a political executive with the First Nations summit, who signed the letter, said there has so far been no response and that the community deserves an apology.

"It was really concerning to have somebody questioning that, as well as trying to pit First Nations communities, Indigenous people, against non-Indigenous people," she said.

"First Nations communities are already at a huge disadvantage. [...] It's already a challenge and a difficulty in being able to access health services through a system that has already been deemed to be systematically racist."

In November 2020 an investigation led by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond found that racism, stereotyping and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in the B.C. health-care system are widespread and can be deadly.

With files from Nantou Soumahoro