Winnipeg's Inuit-run vaccine clinic delivers welcome dose of familiarity

Tackling cultural, logistical, and historical challenges, the growing Inuit population in Manitoba is working to protect its community from COVID-19 through a series of small clinics.

Hundreds receive COVID-19 vaccines through Manitoba Inuit Association's clinics

Janet Kanayok, who heads up programs and services at the Manitoba Inuit Association, during the group's third vaccine clinic on Wednesday. The province's growing Inuit population is working to protect its community from COVID-19 through a series of small clinics. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Jocelyn Piirainen is waiting to get the all-clear after receiving her second vaccine dose.

"I felt more comfortable coming here," she says.

Like at any other clinic in Manitoba, a public health nurse wheels a cart with supplies between chairs, giving each person a quick needle, followed by a bright green sticker that reads, "I am COVID-19 vaccinated."

What's different is that Piirainen is surrounded by Inuit art and signs written in Inuktitut. She's at the Manitoba Inuit Association's vaccine clinic at the organization's building in Winnipeg.

"Just knowing that I would be surrounded by others that I know really helps," she says.

Piirainen moved from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to Winnipeg two years ago. She's part of a growing population of Inuit travelling south for access to opportunities, education and health care.

Helping co-ordinate the vaccine clinics is a fellow Inuk, Janet Kanayok.

The Manitoba Inuit Association's director of programs and services is also new to Winnipeg. She moved here in 2019 from Ulukhaktok in the Inuvik region in the Northwest Territories so her children could have better access to health care.

Bobby Tagoona, from Baker Lake, Nunavut, receives a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic held at the Manitoba Inuit Association June 16. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Now, she's helping Inuit living in Manitoba, a population which she estimates has grown to more than 1,200 people, make the important health decision to get vaccinated.

"We've called everybody. We've sent out emails. We've sent out mail letters. We've reached out to everyone we can," she says.

Unlike other vaccine sites in the city, Kanayok says their clinic on Notre Dame Avenue provides a familiar place to many of the city's Inuit, and a familiar face too.

"They get to be around their fellow Inuit," she says. "Our staff here is all Inuk. So that makes a huge difference."

Kanayok estimates the small team has managed to vaccinate more than 400 Inuit who might have otherwise not gotten a shot. They also provide vaccines to non-Inuit household members.

Janet Kanayok stands outside of the Manitoba Inuit Association's vaccine clinic on Wednesday afternoon. The group has helped hundreds of Inuit in the province get immunized against COVID-19. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

The association has tried to cut down logistic barriers that might make it hard, by providing transportation to and from the appointments and child care while parents are getting a vaccine. They've also accepted walk-ins.

But the aim of the Inuit-centered clinic is to also help combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, especially from those who historically have a reason to be distrustful of government.

"They're a lot more comfortable knowing that if my fellow Inuk is OK with this, then it must be good. Or if we tell our family members and they're a lot less afraid to come because their family members are coming as well."

Inuit 'often in the background'

Indigenous groups have been holding vaccine clinics in Winnipeg, but this one is unique, Kanayok says, because Inuit have a distinct culture.

"It's important because Inuit are often in the background and sort of forgotten about. We don't have a very large population compared to First Nations or Métis people," she says.

The head of Manitoba's vaccine task force has spoken increasingly of the importance of community-led vaccination campaigns and clinics, as the province attempts to push the percentage of vaccinated people over 70 per cent.

"Organizations will have the existing relationships and existing knowledge of their communities, and the needs of the people in their communities," Dr. Joss Reimer said Wednesday.

"They are better positioned than the provincial government."

At the clinic, Jenelle Sammurtok has made it her mission to encourage fellow Inuit to get a vaccine, too.

Heading up the Manitoba Inuit Association's COVID-19 supports, she moves between the front entrance and the two small vaccine rooms, answering people's questions and helping them fill out their consent forms.

"The people that I've talked to that are coming, they were hesitant before. I think [they] are starting to realize that it's not that scary and that it's going to make a difference," she says.

 "I've told people my story," she says. "I've lost people in my family due to COVID. And that's the reason why I got the vaccine and to protect myself and other people around me."

Winnipeg's Inuit-run vaccine clinic delivers welcome dose of familiarity

2 years ago
Duration 2:15
The province's growing Inuit population is working to protect its community from COVID-19 through a series of small clinics.


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.