As It Happens

How one Indigenous doctor is tackling vaccine hesitancy, starting with her own mom

Dr. Ojistoh Horn is trying to help people in her community make informed decisions about whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine — starting with those closest to her.

New website connects Métis, First Nations and Inuit with vaccine information

The Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health at Women’s College Hospital has teamed up with Indigenous health-care workers and elders to launch a new online hub of COVID-19 vaccine information. (File photo from Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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Dr. Ojistoh Horn is trying to help people in her community make informed decisions about whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine — beginning with her own family. 

The Mohawk physician is one of several health-care workers and elders providing vaccine education to Indigenous communities with long histories of being mistreated, abused and experimented on by Canadian institutions. 

"The strongest, most powerful person in my life is my mother, Kahentinetha Horn, who has been a force to be reckoned with in terms of understanding our history and our culture and in trying to figure out why we make certain decisions and be responsible for our decisions," Horn told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"She has been the most important person that I have had to talk to to try and give her the information so that she can make the right decision as to taking the vaccination."

Horn has teamed up with a number of health-care providers working to connect First Nations, Métis and Inuit with information and Indigenous-led discussions about the COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out across the country. 

It's a partnership between the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council, Anishnawbe Health Toronto, the Indigenous Health Program at University Health Network and Shkaabe Makwa — an Indigenous-focused branch of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. 

The core of the initiative is a new virtual hub called Maad'ookiing Mshkiki, which means "sharing medicine" in  Anishinaabemowin.

"This project provides accessible resources that are grounded in Indigenous histories, cultures, and worldviews," Caroline Lidstone-Jones, CEO of the Indigenous Primary Health Care Council, said in a press release.

"By sharing traditional knowledges and healing practices along with Western, scientific information about vaccines, these resources provide information to enable and empower people to make informed decisions about their own health and well-being."

Dr. Ojistoh Horn is a general practitioner Akwesasne, outside Cornwall, Ont. (Submitted by Ojistoh Horn)

Horn is a family doctor and the only full-time physician practising in Akwesasne near Cornwall, Ont.

She says some folks in her community are ready and willing to get the jab, while others are nervous to roll up their sleeves for a country that's misled them time and again. 

"The hesitancy comes from a long historical record of injustices having to do directly with the Indian Act and the different policies that came from that, which always led in the direction of trying to use our bodies as a way of doing research and removing our children from our sphere of influence," Horn said. 

"There was, over many, many generations, a progressive enforcement of lack of trust." 

'Used as lab rats'

One feature of the virtual hub are "fireside chats" — video conversations with Indigenous health-care providers, experts and patients. Horn recently participated in one that included her mother

A longtime activist, Kahentinetha Horn has lived through traumatic periods including residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Oka Crisis, and the outlawing of Indigenous cultural practices. 

"I'm old enough, and some of us are old enough, to remember how badly we've been treated health-wise. And so that's still in our mind, what has happened to us in the past," she says in the video. "We don't know what's going to happen. We feel like we're being used as lab rats."

Kahentinetha Horn participates in a discussion about the benefits of vaccination for the Maad'ookiing Mshkiki virtual hub. ( Maad'ookiing Mshkiki—Sharing Medicine/YouTube)

Those fears are steeped in real history. Indigenous children in Canada were subjected to medical experimentation in the residential school system. The federal government took more than 150,000 children from their families and forced them to attend church-run boarding schools, where abuse and neglect were rampant.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates 6,000 residential school students died from disease, malnourishment, suicide, failed escape attempts and more. 

Kahentinetha attended a day school rather than a residential school, her daughter said. But while she was able to return home at the end of each day, "the abuses were still there."

'I had to go through my own process of discovery'

But vaccine hesitancy is not restricted to people her mother's age, Horn said.

"We have storytelling as a way of transmitting information through generations, over time. And when somebody tells the story, it's first person, so it really is a live story," Horn said. "Even though the memory may be very old, it still is alive when we hear it from the people around us."

What's more, systemic racism and medical discrimination continues to be a problem for people seeking care today.

Even as a doctor, Horn says she wasn't sure if she wanted to be vaccinated.

"I'm not a virologist. I don't work in a lab. So it took a lot for me to talk to my friends, talk to some people who'd read the studies and to really understand the biology behind it, the science," she said. "And so I had to go through my own process of discovery."

Ultimately, as the only doctor in her town, she concluded that it was her responsibility to be inoculated to better protect her patients. She says she also has a professional and cultural responsibility to help others make informed decisions about their health. 

"We're born into this world with a gift … and our job as the families, as a community, is to make the space so that child can grow up and learn and experience the world around them, and come across their gift, and then allow the space to learn it and to become very good at it — and then one day have a voice to that gift and be able to then express it and teach it," she said.

"Now we have this huge pandemic, and so this gift that I've nurtured over my entire life is right here. And I have this responsibility to be able to express it in the way that, most importantly, my mom, can understand so that she can make the best decision."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Dr. Ojistoh Horn produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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