As the provincial vaccine rollout continues to ramp up, the Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team has reported that over 60,000 First Nation people have received at least one shot of a COVID vaccine.
Of that number, more than 70 per cent of the vaccines have been administered on reserve.
In looking at the different regions in the province, First Nations have seen varying levels of success in getting shots in the arms of community members.
In Pimicikamak Cree Nation, more than 70 per cent of eligible people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, but Chief David Monias says that’s not enough.
“The goal is actually to have 75 per cent of our people vaccinated,” he said. “We’re about five per cent short of that goal … but also we want to make sure that our children are protected, make sure that we are healthy enough to have herd immunity in the community so that we would be able to have some form of normalcy.”
Monias has used community radio and Facebook to communicate the need for mass-vaccination..
With a shipment of Pfizer expected to arrive later this month, the community is setting its sights on vaccinating youth in the community, which could start as early as May 27.
“We’ve been getting some positive feedback from people who want their children vaccinated, and I think everybody wants to protect their children, and that’s the main thing,” Monias said.
Despite the success of the vaccine clinic in Pimicikamak Cree Nation, Monias says some people are still worried about vaccine safety: “Of course there’s always going to be the naysayers … people who don’t believe in the vaccine, that they feel that we’re being test subjects. But the reality is, what’s the alternative?”
Skeptical of government
Other First Nations in Manitoba have been having a much more difficult time persuading members to roll up their sleeves.
In Black River First Nation, home to 700 people, Chief Sheldon Kent says approximately 250 people have been vaccinated.
That’s 35.7 per cent of the population — a much smaller percentage than the provincial average of 48.6 per cent.
“There are a lot of people worried about the side effects of the vaccine, and you got to realize why people are afraid or skeptical of anything that the government is promoting,” Kent said.
“Since our treaties have been signed, we’ve been through day schools, we’ve been through residential schools — all these different institutions that were created — and our people weren’t treated very well.
“We’re still dealing with [the] effects from those institutions that were created by the government to try and assimilate our people.”
The first round of vaccines offered in Black River First Nation were given to elders of the community, but when the clinic was opened up to the general population, the community was left with an extra 100 doses, which they ended up offering to RCMP and non-status people living nearby.
People are very skeptical when it comes to [the] government advocating this is good for you … we got a long ways to go,”– Chief Sheldon Kent, Black River First Nation
Kent has been hitting the pavement in his community, answering questions about the safety of the vaccine, saying he’s had to combat misinformation spreading on social media.
“What I’ve been doing is I’ve been using testimony from other individuals that have got the COVID-19 virus … people have been sharing their videos with me personally,” Kent said.
Through his tireless efforts to answer questions, he says he persuaded approximately another 70 people to get a first dose. For Kent, the desire to build trust for the vaccine hits close to home.
“I know even my own family — I come from a family of eight of us — and my siblings are skeptical about [the vaccine], but most of them have all went and got vaccines.
“[The testimonies] are an eye-opener for them, they have to see it first-hand and these are real people, real people that we know … it helps when we’re advocating to our citizens in our community to receive vaccines.”
History of mistrust
For Kent the issue remains that his community has been mistreated in the past by federal and provincial governments, making it difficult for his citizens to trust the current public health recommendation to get a COVID vaccine.
“People are very skeptical when it comes to [the] government advocating this is good for you … we got a long ways to go,” Kent said.
“I think the big word for everybody that they’re utilizing now is called ‘truth and reconciliation.’ We have to build that trust, re-establish that, and that plays a big factor in [our] communities.”
Manitoba First Nations COVID-19 Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team cautions against labelling First Nations as being more weary of the vaccine.
“Over 50,000 First Nations people have been vaccinated, which is actually over 50 per cent of the eligible First Nations people in the province,” said Dr. Marcia Anderson.
“I think we do need to be cautious in messaging that would suggest hesitancy is higher among First Nations people.”
The task force says they’re focused on increasing accessibility of the vaccine for First Nations people, adding that what is often interpreted as hesitancy can often just be a matter of not being able to access the vaccine.