Connecting Indigenous Peoples to Informed Choices with COVID-19 Vaccines

Friday, February 11th, 2022 6:02pm

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Connecting Indigenous Peoples to Informed Choices with COVID-19 Vaccines

Author, Shelley Mantei

First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities across Canada are continuing their efforts in responding to COVID-19. Indigenous Peoples are joining ancient and contemporary practices to change the course of history by surviving and thriving during the pandemic.

Canada wide, Indigenous communities are taking actions such as using masks, physically distancing, and vaccination to protect their community, Elders and family. As of January 25, 2022, over 86% of individuals aged 12 and older in First Nations, Inuit and territorial communities have received a second dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. With the recent approval of pediatric vaccines, over 43% of individuals aged 5 to 11 have received at least one dose.

Beyond the pandemic’s effect on health, there is often a crisis within the crisis where unequal distribution of vaccines extends the pandemic even further. This is not the case in Canada, where Indigenous Peoples are included among the priority groups receiving the vaccine. This serves as a way of addressing historical inequities, which had made Indigenous Peoples disproportionately more vulnerable to viruses.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis have access to vaccines. Vaccine clinics are well underway in Indigenous communities across the country. Plus, in the event that First Nations peoples and Inuit need to travel out of their community to get to their vaccination or booster appointment, the applicable travel costs will be covered by non-insured health benefits.

While access to the vaccine is not a barrier, many Indigenous people are still experiencing vaccine hesitancy most commonly due to confusion with conflicting information. The Circle of Eagles Lodge Society has created culturally-relevant resources to fully enable individuals to make informed decisions regarding COVID-19 vaccines.

“We are not here to judge anyone’s choices. We’re here to work with our Indigenous community to help everyone make informed choices that are right for them,” said Merv Thomas, CEO of Circle of Eagles Lodge Society.

Indigenous Health Workers

Circle of Eagles Lodge Society (COELS) operates Indigenous halfway homes in Vancouver, BC on the Coast Salish territory to assist Indigenous Brothers and Sisters leaving Canadian federal institutions and those dislocated from society. For over 50 years, COELS has provided supports to successfully reintegrate them into communities by providing wholistic services and culturally safe spaces. This includes men’s and women’s residences, pre-employment programming, cultural healing, and life skills.

Their COVID-19 decision-making resources range from education on COVID-19 and variants, vaccine comparison charts, a review of side effects and likelihood, to tips on how to audit trusted sources to avoid misinformation.

“People can make informed choices about their health and well-being by asking questions, participating in fireside chats and expressing their feelings about COVID-19 vaccinations, and leveraging science-driven experts.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, in partnership with Indigenous Services Canada, is addressing COVID-19 vaccine confidence by establishing the “Talking Stick” app for First Nations communities. Talking Stick is an innovative, Indigenous-led app that provides a digital platform for First Nations peoples to ask questions and share their concerns, fears, and emotions about COVID-19. Talking Stick will have a network of Indigenous leaders, including Elders, Knowledge Keepers, youth ambassadors, and trusted community members, to facilitate discussion, inspire trust, and provide health resources to those seeking help for COVID-19.

It is important to ensure that everyone vet information to avoid vaccine misinformation that is especially prevalent on social media. Especially given some online misinformation has been linked to white supremist and faith-based groups with the intent to create fear of vaccination and cause harm to Indigenous Peoples.

Thomas cautions, “Listen to scientists not social media. Do your own research with trusted sources and make informed choices that blend education along with lifeways, customs, and spirituality driven by the ancestral force.” 

Some of the best ways to identify trusted sources are to assess the source, go beyond the headlines, identify the author, check the date, examine the supporting evidence, check your biases and turn to fact-checkers.  

Health experts say that Indigenous communities in Canada can be at greater risk than other groups during a pandemic. The provinces continues to encourage vaccinations, including boosters, for First Nations as more locations and bookings for vaccines are continuously becoming available. 

Circle of Eagles Lodge Society resources are available at www.coels.ca/covid-19-2022