Skip to main content

Hercules military aircraft from the Canadian Armed Forces arrived in Shamattawa First Nation Wednesday afternoon to assist with the community's COVID-19 outbreak. .Facebook/Handout

Indigenous Services Canada says it is working closely with the provinces, territories and Indigenous leaders on the eventual rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine to communities identified as a priority for Canada’s immunization campaign.

But Tom Wong, the department’s Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, warns that the plan will not work without partnership.

The help of provinces and territories will be required to support the vaccination of First Nations, Métis and Inuit regardless of where they reside, Dr. Wong said Wednesday at a briefing in Ottawa, noting that a federal-provincial-Indigenous working group has been created at the national level.

“First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have taught us a lot,” he said. “We were taught that we are in the same boat together. If one part sinks, the whole boat sinks.”

There is considerable concern among Indigenous leaders about when a vaccine will be made available and their heightened vulnerability to the impact of the virus due to lack of access to medical services and the prevalence of underlying medical conditions. For example, in Shamattawa First Nation in northern Manitoba, at least 357 cases were confirmed as of Sunday among 1,000 people who live in the community.

Questions remain, however, about what the immunization campaign will look like.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that the Moderna vaccine, which is expected to be approved soon by Health Canada, will be directed to the North, as well as to remote and Indigenous communities.

“We’re working to ensure the logistics planning is ready when vaccines are available and have already shipped medical-grade freezers to the North,” he said. “As soon as we get the green light, we’ll be ready to go.”

Ottawa, however, has faced pressure from Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister on its allocation plans for COVID-19 vaccines including for Indigenous communities.

Earlier this month, Mr. Pallister noted a higher rate of infection among Indigenous Manitobans while he said Ottawa’s approach was going to hurt his province.

“The federal government is telling us they are going to distribute the vaccine on a per-capita basis,” he said in comments that prompted immediate condemnation from Indigenous leaders in the province.

“They are also telling us that they are going to hold back the portion of our vaccines for Manitoba that they would then allocate to Indigenous and First Nations communities. What that would mean then is that Manitobans who do not live in northern Indigenous communities would be the least likely to get the vaccine in the country.”

Evan Adams, Indigenous Services Canada’s deputy chief medical officer, said Wednesday that ideally there would be collaboration with First Nations, Métis, Inuit and provincial governments on the vaccine rollout.

It is the federal government’s expectation that an agreement will be reached on an approach that ensures people are protected, he said.

“I would hate to consider the worst-case scenario where people don’t get along,” Dr. Adams said. “We are very active at the table trying to make plans regardless of maybe some public stated positions.”

In an interview Wednesday with The Globe and Mail, Natan Obed, the president of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), said there have been conversations with Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and his department about the pandemic and plans for vaccine distribution.

He said that ITK has been stressing the importance of community-wide vaccination considering the small size of communities, logistics and costs and health and safety of Inuit. He noted factors including overcrowded homes and issues of food insecurity, poverty and proximity to medical services.

“When the vaccine is available, we are hoping that the rollout will look a little bit different than it might in Southern Canada but for very valid reasons,” he said.

Mr. Obed said there is goodwill and much work that has gone into the plan from the federal government, adding that the major consideration at the moment is trying to get out as much information as possible about the vaccine.

“We are expecting that the information will be there and that we can have it in Inuktitut, it can be distributed amongst all channels of where Inuit get their information and then communities will be ready to make an informed choice,” he said. “That really is the last piece. I think all the other pieces have fallen into place.”

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.