Workshop offers solutions to get COVID-19 information to Dene elders

As the COVID-19 vaccine is being administered in communities across the Northwest Territories, a Dene workshop looked at what's needed to make sure elders have the information to make a decision about the vaccine.

Language barriers make it difficult for elders to make informed decisions about COVID-19 and vaccine

Paul Andrew, a Dene elder and former CBC broadcaster, recently helped organize a virtual Dene language terminology workshop, inviting three members from the five major Dene regions to talk about COVID-19 and how to start translating medical terminology in the different dialects. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

Dene elders are working to get terminology around COVID-19 in their traditional dialects so fellow elders are informed about the disease and the vaccine.

It can be difficult for Dene elders, who either don't speak English or for whom it's a second language, to make well-informed decisions because there's no terminology about the disease in their language. A lot of material about COVID-19 is only in English.

"Some of the elders do not have any reading skills in English," said Rose Betthale-Reid, an elder in Fort Liard, N.W.T.

She said she's been frustrated by the communication surrounding COVID-19 in her community, where a cluster of cases has led to a two-week containment order, which are a number of measures to prevent the spread.

Even those who do speak English don't necessarily understand the terminology surrounding COVID-19, Betthale-Reid said.

"Look, even the word containment order. What does that mean?" she asked.

"Those people from the government world, they can understand that, but it's frustrating for Native people that are fluent in their [own] language."

Urgently needed

Paul Andrew, a Dene elder and former CBC broadcaster, is trying to make the situation better.

He recently helped organize and conduct a virtual Dene language terminology workshop, inviting three members from the five major Dene regions, to talk about COVID-19 and how to start translating some medical terminology in the different dialects.

It's urgent to get it done, Andrew says, because the N.W.T. government has started to vaccinate people in the communities and many, including elders, don't have the proper information to make well-informed decisions.

Look, even the word containment order. What does that mean?- Rose Betthale-Reid, Fort Liard elder

One of the terms that he says is difficult to understand is "getting a dose of vaccine."

"What does that mean? We had to ask the medical professionals," said Andrew.

Terms like immune system, side effects, antibody, pandemic, and contact tracing are also difficult to translate.

"These are not terms we've used in the past," he explained.

Premier Caroline Cochrane, seen here in a file photo, said the territorial government has translated many of its COVID-19 brochures and posters and that it's trying to get the information out to as many people as possible. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

He says the lack of terminology in the Dene language is causing a lot of confusion and fear.

"There are a number of Indigenous people who do not function at all, and some do not function very well in the English language, and that special care must be given for them," he said.

"They can't access programs or services from the government of Northwest Territories. And I think this particular, very fluid situation that we see with COVID-19, is evident. It has become very real now."

Gov't trying to translate brochures, posters

Premier Caroline Cochrane said the territorial government has tried to translate its brochures and posters in the territory's nine official Indigenous languages.

She said the government is also using community radio to distribute information about COVID-19 in Fort Liard, and contracting people who speak the local language to go door-to door with information sheets about how to keep safe during the pandemic.

"We're trying to do everything we can to get the information and to reach as many people as possible," she said.

Putting more COVID-19 information out on community radio that broadcasts in the Dene dialects was also an idea at the Dene workshop, said Andrew, along with having youth work with elders to make sure they understand about COVID-19 and the vaccine, and training more translators.

It would help reassure elders that it's OK to take the vaccine, said Andrew, but it needs to happen now.

"One of the things we found with [Fort] Liard is that things can happen so quickly, so we need those people on the ground ready."

With files from Lawrence Nayally