Advocates for urban Indigenous population push for prioritization in Quebec's vaccination plan
Some off-reserve First Nations members plan to return home to receive their shots
While the Quebec government's goal is to vaccinate First Nations communities against the coronavirus by the end of March, those who live off-reserve are concerned about falling through the cracks with the province's vaccination plan and are looking for alternative solutions to receive the shot.
Chad Cowie is a member of the Mississaugas of Rice Lake (Hiawatha First Nation) in Ontario but lives in Île-Perrot, Que. He plans on going back to his community for the vaccine when it becomes available in the coming weeks.
"I know I'll be able to. It will be a lot easier through my community," said Cowie.
"My community has made it very clear that anyone who is a member of the community can come back and get it, and that includes our household, instead of having to wait until next fall."
Quebec's Ministry of Health and Social Services does not list Indigenous people as a priority group for the vaccine, and told CBC News that those living outside of their community or integrated in urban areas "will be given priority in the same way as non-Indigenous citizens."
Advocates across Quebec have been pushing for that to change in their respective regions.
The Maniwaki Native Friendship Centre serves about 500 Indigenous people living in Maniwaki, Que., with the majority being members of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.
"The centre fill the gaps because there's no representation in the regions for Indigenous people. They get forgotten," said executive director Charlotte Commonda.
"It's always a struggle, and it gets frustrating at times."
Commonda said the friendship centre has been working with the region's public health department, and its clients who aren't members of either nearby First Nation will be prioritized in the town's vaccination plan in the next two weeks if supply issues don't arise.
She emphasized that's not the case for all 11 friendship centres in Quebec, and every region is different.
Federal call to prioritize Indigenous populations
During a news conference last week, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the federal government is committed to advocate for and work with provinces on behalf of all Indigenous people for vaccinations.
"The decision to prioritize Indigenous people living in remote communities but also in other parts of the country, including those living in urban settings, is based on science. It's not a matter of politics or opinion," he said.
"When we talk about social determinants of health, the adverse outcomes, co-morbidities that exist in respect to COVID, they are more prevalent in Indigenous people. That scientific reality does not end at the reserve line. It exists in urban communities; it exists in the Far North."
A spokesperson for the office of Quebec's minister of Indigenous affairs Ian Lafrenière referred questions about the push to have urban Indigenous populations vaccinated sooner back to the provincial health ministry. The health ministry has yet to respond.
In Manitoba, traditional healers and knowledge keepers who don't live on reserves will soon be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and Ontario established a working group specifically about urban Indigenous COVID-19 vaccination.
Like Cowie, Commonda said some clients are also planning to go back to their respective communities to get vaccinated. Others are waiting to hear what the position of communities are for off-reserve members.
Crystal Semaganis, who lives in Témiscaming, Que., spent the last few weeks calling everywhere and anywhere trying to find out how she can be vaccinated.
Semaganis is a Sixties Scoop survivor from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan, and moved to Quebec last year. She wants to be vaccinated sooner rather than later, as someone who is immuno-compromised and a single parent.
"I went as far as contacting Marc Miller on Facebook," she said.
"It was really concerning just to be lumped in with everybody. There was this frustration because all the Indigenous people who are local to the area get the services and support that has been doled out for COVID and I fall between those cracks."
First Nations around Témiscaming began mass vaccination of its members this week, and Segamanis said she received a call about booking an appointment with Wolf Lake First Nation after she vented her frustrations over Facebook.
"I was so happy to receive that call," she said.
"I don't think everyone will get that opportunity, so I'm very grateful."