COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins in remote northern Ontario communities

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine has begun to roll out in remote northern Ontario communities, starting with Sioux Lookout and Moose Factory.

ORNGE air ambulance service to deliver vaccine to fly-in communities

Eunice Fiddler, 85, was the first resident at the William A. George Extended Care Facility in Sioux Lookout to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Submitted by Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre)

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he is feeling optimistic as COVID-19 vaccinations begin rolling out in northern Ontario.

Vaccinations with the Moderna vaccine began last Thursday at William A. George Extended Care Facility in Sioux Lookout, Ont., with Fiddler's mother, Eunice Fiddler, who is an 85-year-old resident at the facility.

"It was a bit of an emotional moment," said Fiddler. 

"She is someone who gathered medicines and someone who looked after the sick for many, many years."

He said she has talked about her experiences with flu epidemics where she lost many friends and relatives. 

Forty-four of 47 residents in the long-term care facility gave their consent to be vaccinated. 

Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said he is feeling optimistic as COVID-19 vaccine begins rolling out. (CBC)

"That tells me that they want to live; they want to be healthy; they want to see their grandkids again," he said. 

"I was really encouraged when I heard that so many of them gave their consent to take this vaccine, and that should be a message to all of us."

Fiddler said public education will be a key part in spreading awareness about the vaccine, correcting misinformation and easing apprehensions about it as it begins to roll out across the territory. 

"It's important that we do this in a good way, in a safe way, and in a way that all of our citizens in Nishnawbe Aski Nation can absorb all this information," he said.

He said they want to make sure information is available in English, Cree, Oji-Cree and Ojibway. 

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done in a short period of time," said Fiddler.

A lot of people 'in the grey' zone over vaccine

Sam Hunter lives in Peawanuck, a fly-in Cree community of 237 about 800 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., that is home to Weenusk First Nation.

He said he doesn't know when the vaccine will be arriving in his community and heard coastal communities along James Bay will be receiving it first. 

Sam Hunter from Peawanuck, Ont., says he doesn't know when his community will be getting the vaccine but wants people to stay home and stay safe in the meantime. (Sam Hunter/ Facebook)

Community members are also divided on what they think of the vaccine. 

"There are a lot of people that are in the grey," he said.

"There are a few that want it, and there are also a few that are totally against it because they don't know enough about it." 

While the community waits for vaccinations, he said he hopes people will not fly out of the community.

"I think that if you stay home, you will not get it," said Hunter.

He said even one death from COVID-19 would be a big loss for such a small community.

Air ambulance service to distribute vaccine

Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), ORNGE and the provincial government have been working in partnership to develop a plan for the distribution of vaccine to First Nations in northern Ontario including 31 remote First Nations in NAN.

ORNGE is a not-for-profit entity that was created in 2005 to co-ordinate all air ambulance services in the province.

President and CEO of ORNGE,  Dr. Homer Tien, said a unique plan for distribution is being developed with each of the communities. 

Tien and Fiddler will be phoning the chiefs of each community individually to go through information about the vaccine and how it will be distributed. 

First Nations will also need to hire a community co-ordinator to identify those who need to receive the vaccination first and those who are unable to get to the central location, hire drivers and translators, as well as start an engagement and communications strategy in the community.

The plan calls for vaccinators to first be vaccinated themselves before going into remote communities. This means that there will be some delay in getting the vaccine to remote communities because the ORNGE teams have just received their first dose of the vaccine.

The smallest and most remote communities will be prioritized in the sequencing of distribution and vaccination will begin with the elderly, vulnerable and health-care workers.   

The goal is to complete COVID-19 vaccinations for the 31 NAN fly-in communities by April 30, 2021.

ORNGE made its first vaccine delivery to the Meno Ya Win Health Centre in Sioux Lookout and the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority in Moose Factory on Jan. 5. They will be in charge of distributing the vaccine in their regions. 

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.