The Current

'It's a game-changer': Indigenous leaders encourage communities to line up for COVID-19 vaccine

As Indigenous and northern communities receive some of the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, Nunavut’s health minister is encouraging skeptics of the injection to roll up their sleeves to keep others safe.

As vaccine rollout begins, some communities also grappling with skepticism, say officials

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson greet the first boxes of Moderna vaccines to arrive in Nunavut on Dec. 30. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

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As Indigenous and northern communities receive some of the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, Nunavut's health minister is encouraging skeptics of the injection to roll up their sleeves to keep others safe.

"Getting the vaccination is, yes, it's about protecting yourself. But for me, it's more about protecting those that cannot get the vaccine, to protect the children and those that are in the position where, because of their health and other reasons, [they] cannot get immunized," Lorne Kusugak told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Sometimes it's not about us. It's about protecting those that cannot be protected."

Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has advised that adults in Indigenous communities, where COVID-19 infections can have disproportionate consequences, should be among the first people in the country to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

In Nunavut, where medical resources are more scarce, the emergence of COVID-19 in early November demonstrated just how rapidly the virus can spread, as the territory's case count climbed from zero to 266 in a matter of a few months.

With thousands of doses of the Moderna vaccine now in hand in Nunavut, residents are expected to start receiving vaccinations on Wednesday, starting at Iqaluit's elders' centre

However, Kusugak said there will always be people who are concerned about getting inoculated.

Nunavut Health Minister Lorne Kusugak is urging Nunavummiut to get vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable community members. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

The minister said he's heard some people say they don't want to be "guinea pigs" for the vaccine.

"But if we're last, it's 'Here we go again, being last.' So you never win on that discussion," Kusugak added.

Moderna vaccine 'life-saving' for B.C. First Nation 

Meanwhile, vaccinations are already underway in other Indigenous communities around the country, including Tahltan Nation in northern British Columbia, which includes three main communities: Iskut, Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek.

Despite some hesitancy among residents about whether or not to get the jab, Feddie Louie, director of the Tahltan Central Government's Emergency Operations Centre, described the arrival of the Moderna vaccine as "life-saving."

"We have been in lockdown basically from day one. It's a game changer. It's freedom for us," said Louie, who got vaccinated against the coronavirus last week.

It's a game changer. It's freedom for us.- Feddie Louie, Tahltan Central Government


Since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has severed important social connections in Louie's community and taken a toll on residents' mental health. Keeping elders both happy and safe has been particularly difficult, she added.

The vaccine's arrival means Tahltan Nation no longer has to "live in fear."

Feddie Louie is the director of the Tahltan Nation's Emergency Operations Centre. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

So far, most elders from the First Nation have been getting the vaccine, except for a few who would like to but are unable to do so because of their medical history, Louie said.

To those community members who are unsure about getting the shot, Louie urges them to "do the research."

"I'm not here to convince anyone to get the vaccine. It's a personal choice," she explained.

However, she said it is everyone's responsibility to protect their communities. 

"Vaccines are one more tool in our toolbox."

Manitoba First Nations skeptical of vaccine, says chief

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs' Organization of Manitoba agrees on the importance of vaccination, especially for protecting elders and people with compromised immune systems.

His organization represents 34 Anishinaabe and Dakota communities in southern Manitoba. 

Southern Chiefs' Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says there has been a 'great deal of skepticism' among Manitoba First Nations toward the COVID-19 vaccine. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

First Nations in that province have been among the hardest-hit in the country by COVID-19.

In early December, for example, First Nations people represented more than 40 per cent of those in ICUs in Manitoba due to the virus.

"As we started to see very early on, the impact on First Nations was much higher than … the regular Manitoban," Daniels said. 

The province has since allotted 5,300 Moderna vaccines to be immediately distributed to First Nations. There are 63 First Nations in Manitoba, representing about 150,000 people.

Daniels said there is still a "great deal of skepticism" among community members toward the vaccine. First Nations in the province are therefore going through a registration process to determine who wants to be vaccinated, and where the 5,300 doses should be distributed, he said.

But he added that it's important for community members to understand that the vaccine is a "peer-reviewed" and "thoroughly analyzed" tool to protect the most vulnerable citizens.

"Our best health-care professionals are advising that this is the best course of action for us," Daniels said. 

"We have to have confidence in that."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Lindsay Rempel and Alex Zabjek. 

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