Vaccinations begin for hundreds of Indigenous elders

Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health begins its campaign to inoculate Indigenous elders against the COVID-19 virus.

Smudging ceremony makes getting the jab a little easier for elders

Allison Fisher, executive director of Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, says she's happy to know that the vaccine will help reunite Indigenous elders with their families. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

After a winter storm delayed delivery by a day, hundreds of Indigenous elders in Ottawa will get their first COVID-19 vaccinations on Thursday — a milestone for the community.

The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health, will administer the first round of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to about 340 seniors aged 70 years or older.

Vaccinating them first is a priority for the community, said Wabano's executive director Allison Fisher. She said the centre made about 26,000 wellness checks on isolated seniors since the pandemic began. 

"They are the knowledge keepers. They are the holder of our traditions and our culture," said Fisher.

Fisher said the centre wanted to make the experience of getting the shot as pleasant as possible, so the process has been tailored to make the seniors feel at ease from beginning to end. 

A smudging ceremony and the sounds of traditional music will greet the elders as they arrive. The waiting and recovery areas lie within the towering light-filled atrium, designed by Canadian Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal, which is decorated with colourful art and mosaics representing stories of Indigenous culture.

The waiting area is set among traditional art in the centre's Grand Space, designed by Indigenous Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"We've worked hard to ensure that they're not thinking about the actual vaccination when they arrive in the centre," said Fisher. 

Being around the things that they're familiar with will make the experience of getting the needle less intimidating, according Fisher, who adds she hasn't seen any resistance among the elders to getting the vaccine. 

She believes that's because clients trust the Wabano Centre to take care of them. 

And she says that's important, because many of them have a history of inadequate health care, which has left them vulnerable to COVID-19.

"They come with more chronic diseases because of the lack of access to health care throughout their lifetime," said Fisher. "It's important that they have access to a place like this, but also access to that first vaccine."

The centre is expecting more deliveries in March and April, a prospect that fills Fisher with joy because it will mean more grandparents can be reunited with families they haven't been able to see in months. 

On Wednesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said vaccination rates in those First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are now significantly higher than those reported elsewhere.

While the initial batch of shots has been largely administered in those communities, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said there should now be a greater push to cover urban Indigenous individuals who may be even more vulnerable.

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