How Indigenous communities are working to boost COVID-19 vaccine rates

Indigenous physicians say it's key to recognize the history of colonialism and trauma that's behind vaccine mistrust in some First Nations communities to boost COVID-19 vaccine rates.

Some First Nations communities in Sask. have among the lowest vaccination rates in the province

Alana Kennedy is calling on people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (CBC News)

Alana Kennedy knows the toll COVID-19 takes. 

The virus spread through her family a few months ago. Kennedy, her mom, her dad and her niece all got sick.

"We were all isolating together at my parents' place and I was scared. We were all scared," she said. 

 Her mother is still in the hospital in Saskatoon.

"My mom getting sick really crumbled my world, because she's a rock in our family. She is the one that we go to for guidance," Kennedy said. "She is our mom, and mom is our number one priority in our family," 

Kennedy and her family are vaccinated, and she wants others to do the same.

But in Saskatchewan — the province with the lowest vaccination rate in Canada — some Indigenous communities, along with some southern farming communities, have among the lowest COVID-19 vaccine uptake. 

First Nation communities in Northern Saskatchewan are fighting an uphill battle against the virus, with case rates twice as high as the rest of the province. 

And where Kennedy lives, in Little Pine First Nation in central Saskatchewan, only 35 per cent of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine — well below the provincial average.

Some Indigenous health-care providers are trying to change that, acknowledging the history of colonialism and trauma that may be leading to vaccine mistrust in the first place.

Vaccine mistrust has deep historical roots

Dr. James Makokis, an Indigenous family physician from Saddle Lake First Nation, Alta., said vaccine mistrust in Indigenous communities has its roots in colonization and residential schools.

"They have a profound mistrust of the medical system because of things that have been imposed on them for decades to over 100 years," he said. 

Dr. James Makokis sits on wooden stairs outside.
Dr. James Makokis uses western and Indigenous medicines to treat his patients. (Submitted by James Makokis)

"What's really important to differentiate [is that] Indigenous peoples who are mistrusting of the health system because of systemic racism, oppression and genocide are a very different population than those that are protesting outside of hospitals for their perceived infringement on their individual human rights."

Makokis said Indigenous health-care workers are best positioned to help increase vaccination rates.

"You address trauma by building trust, by having health professionals that are Indigenous or from the same group."

Indigenous Services Canada says 64 per cent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated in First Nations in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Jaris Swidrovich is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto and a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation. He said a history of vaccine experiments on Indigenous people and forced sterilization on Indigenous women pose a challenge in vaccine uptake in some communities. 

"The decision making process for many Indigenous folks across the country is a little bit different than for non-Indigenous folks. And yes, this does come down to both historical and current practices," he said.

WATCH | Efforts underway to boost vaccination rates in Indigenous communities:

The challenge to raise vaccination rates in Indigenous communities in the West

2 years ago
Duration 2:07
Some Indigenous leaders in Western Canada are working to drive up vaccination rates in their communities, where mistrust caused in part by systemic racism in healthcare has led to a low vaccination rate.

The fight to improve vaccination rates

Along with Dr. Lana Potts of the Piikani First Nation, Makokis launched Power of 100, an initiative aimed at getting Indigenous people vaccinated against COVID-19. Power of 100 organizes clinics filled with music, giveaways and Indigenous influencers. 

"It's essentially Coachella meets your regular vaccination clinic and it meets young Indigenous people where they're at," Makosis said. After events in Alberta, Dr Makokis plans to bring Power of 100 to several Saskatchewan First Nations.

"People are cheered on when they get vaccinated because they are appreciated for protecting not only themselves, but their family and their community. It really gives people a sense of celebration and love."

Swidrovich said some Indigenous communities have been leading the way when it comes to vaccinations in Canada. 

"The Saskatoon Tribal Council had a wonderful vaccination clinic that was absolutely so well-received by members of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities." 

He said all levels of government need to involve Indigenous communities in vaccination efforts.

"We need to be part of media campaigns. There needs to be some culturally relevant and specific information that applies to us," he said.

As for Alana Kennedy, while she thinks about her sick mother, she hopes more people in Saskatchewan will get vaccinated. 

"It doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what your background is, it's very important to get vaccinated."