Thunder Bay

Indigenous people likely affected by COVID-19 at disproportionate rate in Thunder Bay, but no clear data

There may not be publicly available data on the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Indigenous population in Thunder Bay, Ont., but a "high-level analysis" suggests that is the case, said Cora McGuire-Cyrette.

It's not enough to know that Indigenous people were disproportionately affected, action is required: ONWA

Cora McGuire-Cyrette is the Ontario Native Women's Association executive director. (Ontario Native Women's Association)

There may not be publicly available data on the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Indigenous population in Thunder Bay, Ont., but a "high-level analysis," suggests that is the case, said Cora McGuire-Cyrette.

"The data tells you that Indigenous people have 10 years less life expectancy already, never mind adding a pandemic on top of it," said the executive director for the Ontario Native Women's Association (ONWA).

"We all knew that, like any crisis, Indigenous people are going to be over-represented in it due to historical issues, due to poverty, due to colonization."

McGuire-Cyrette said ONWA was not able to track infection rates, but looking at the different outbreaks, she was able to do her own analysis.

Thunder Bay experienced a major outbreak of COVID-19 at the district jail and the correctional centre in the city, and an outbreak was declared in the vulnerable population.

McGuire-Cyrette said Indigenous people are over-represented in the justice system, in the homeless population, and in congregate settings like shelters.

"Within the health care system, I remember at one point I had gotten information that 16 of 18 people in intensive care in Thunder Bay were Indigenous," she added.

No publicly available racial COVID-19 data in Thunder Bay

However, the actual data to show the disproportionate impacts either doesn't exist or isn't publicly available for the Thunder Bay district.

CBC asked a number of organizations for the rate of infection, hospitalization and death as a result of COVID-19 for Indigenous people in Thunder Bay.

None of the contacted organizations were able to provide an answer.

How are we supposed to serve our community if we don't have the appropriate numbers?- Stephanie McConkey, research manager with the Well Living House, University of Toronto

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit said people are asked a series of questions when they test positive, including which race they identify as, but they said few people respond to the question and that they would not provide those numbers "to protect the identity of cases." The health unit did not respond to a follow-up question asking how the provision of such numbers would identify any individuals.

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre said they did not have the information requested, and that they only recently adopted a voluntary, self-identification process for Indigenous people.

CBC was also referred to Public Health Ontario, Indigenous Services Canada, ONWA, and the Chiefs of Ontario. Spokespeople for each of the organizations said they either did not have data or they would not provide comment on the requests.

'How are we supposed to serve our community?'

Stephanie McConkey, a research manager for the University of Toronto's Well Living House, sees the lack of data as a problem.

"How are we supposed to serve our community if we don't have the appropriate numbers?"

She said it is important to know how COVID is affecting high-risk population groups — including people with unstable housing, the older population, those with multiple chronic conditions and people living below the low-income cutoff.

"The majority of Indigenous people do live in one of those categories, and I think it's really important that's recognized … in order to get the appropriate number of vaccines to this population."

Well Living House, an "action research centre" focused on Indigenous health and well-being, has been running a research project called "Our Health Counts" for more than a decade, trying to better understand the health of Indigenous populations in a number of urban centres.

They started working alongside Indigenous health clinic Anishnawbe Mushkiki in Thunder Bay in 2017, and found that the Indigenous population in the city was significantly undercounted.

Official data from the 2016 census showed 9,780 Indigenous people living in the city. The Our Health Counts study, published at the end of 2020, found the population may be between 23,080 and 42,641.

"You can see why there's so much pressure in regards to the Indigenous population having struggles, because we really don't know who lives in our neighbourhood," said the executive director of Anishnawbe Mushkiki Michael Hardy after the report was released.

Well Living House and Anishnawbe Mushkiki are in the process of analyzing their data to get a better sense of the impacts of COVID-19 on the Indigenous population in Thunder Bay.

Data is just the first step: ONWA

While it's important to have those numbers, Cora McGuire-Cyrette of ONWA said that is just one part of the story.

"Data does provide options for good policy-making." 

McGuire-Cyrette said prioritizing Indigenous people on- and off-reserve for both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine was a good start.

But she said there are many health inequities that existed long before COVID-19 and will persist unless action is taken.

"We have to look at how we are going to address systemic change that needs to happen. How are we going to address the level of systemic racism within the health care system?"

With files from Jeff Walters