Cases of COVID-19 are rising in Indigenous communities in Western Canada faster than among the general population, at a time when people are grappling with delayed inoculation campaigns due to vaccine shortages.
According to Canada Public Health and Indigenous Services data, Indigenous communities currently have about 8 percent of the country’s 68,413 active COVID-19 cases, despite accounting for about 5 percent of the total population.
Indigenous communities are more susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks and severe outcomes than the general population, largely due to overcrowding and a lack of essential infrastructure, including clean, running water, caused by Canada’s legacy of colonization, VICE World News previously reported.
“When you have people living under one roof, anywhere from six to as high as 14 members living under one roof...you can see how quickly that spread can happen," Onekanew (Chief) Christian Sinclair of Opaskwayak Cree Nation told CBC News. "We're second-class citizens living in Third World conditions in a first world country.”
At the pandemic’s onset, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told VICE World News, “We can’t tell people to wash their hands if they don’t have clean drinking water...we can’t tell them to go see a health professional or nurse when we don’t have that in our nursing stations.”
Now, outbreaks are all over: Garden Hill First Nation, in northern Manitoba, is receiving military support after reporting more than 300 COVID-19 cases since January 9; about 10 percent of people living in Maskwacis, just south of Edmonton, Alberta, have been infected; and Red Earth Cree Nation, about 290 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, recently reported a budding outbreak, to name a few.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller urged provinces to keep lockdown restrictions in place as a way to protect communities hit hard by COVID-19.
“This is not the time to ease public health restrictions," Miller said.
In Alberta, a province that is largely under lockdown, but has started to lift restrictions, infections for the general population have been trending downwards. But they’re increasing in First Nations and Métis communities, and account for the largest proportion reported in Indigenous communities in Canada. (Alberta has reported nearly one-third of all cases affecting First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples nationwide.)
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was already facing backlash after saying Canada’s vaccine shortage would delay the province’s vaccination campaign in First Nations and Métis communities.
"There was some hope that access to a vaccine would help us. However, given recent decisions of the provincial government, which lacked meaningful First Nations involvement, trust and commitment to partnership continues to be in question," Assembly of First Nations Alberta Regional Chief Marlene Poitras told CBC News on Monday.
Indigenous leaders also spoke out against Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister after he said non-Indigenous Manitobans would be the least likely to get the vaccine in Canada after doses are administered to First Nations.
“Manitobans who do not live in northern and Indigenous communities would be the least likely to get a vaccine in the country...This puts Manitobans at the back of the line,” Pallister said last month.
In a column for CBC, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. Grand Chief Garrison Settee said Pallister owes Indigenous communities an apology. “While many First Nations people living in Manitoba are already pretty clear about the premier's feelings toward us, he made them even clearer,” Settee said.
British Columbia has already started to administer the vaccine in remote First Nations. Ministry of Health spokesperson Devon Smith did not say how vaccine delays will impact the rollout, but B.C.’s top doctor, Bonnie Henry, told reporters earlier this week that vulnerable populations will feel the delay.
“We know that this delay will temporarily slow our delivery into the next phase of at-risk people,” Henry said.
Smith later told VICE World News in a statement that First Nations, Métis, and Inuit seniors, ages 65 and above, elders, and Indigenous communities that don’t receive the vaccine before February can expect to see vaccines between February and March.
Several reports have highlighted how deadly COVID-19 infections among Indigenous elders threaten culture loss. In the U.S, Cherokee Nation has prioritized vaccines for elders who are fluent in Cherokee as a way to safeguard their language.
While Canada’s federal government has developed guidelines for the mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign, provinces and territories are in charge of developing rollout plans and administering shots. In a statement to VICE World News, Indigenous Services acknowledged the vaccine delay and said it’s “working to identify” resource needs to further support Indigenous communities.
The statement did not list how the ministry plans to help communities amid the vaccine shortage, but said, “It is essential for municipalities and provincial and territorial governments to engage and include Indigenous representatives in their COVID-19 vaccine planning and distribution.”
Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.