An Algonquin chief from Quebec went straight to the source – the federal government – to request thousands of urgent vaccinations for his community, which is grappling with a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi, near the Ottawa-Quebec border, says communication with Quebec Public Health is sparse and unsatisfactory – and community leaders are unsure how to proceed.
“At the end of the day, we’re in a hot zone as much as anybody else, with the demographic and the situation we have here,” Whiteduck explained.
“In fact, we have more cases on the rise here per demographic, so we have to take that into consideration,” he added.
COVID-19 inoculation is well underway across the province, with the Moderna vaccine being gradually rolled out in a handful of First Nations communities in the last week.
In a massive undertaking by public health officials, Opiticiwan – an Atikamekw community hit with more than 100 cases of the virus – was the first community to receive the vaccine.
On Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, near Montreal, elders, health-care workers and paramedics received their shots on Wednesday.
The Cree communities of northern Quebec also got started mid-week, just before the Cree Health Board confirmed 11 new cases of COVID-19 linked to a party in Ouje-Bougoumou, a community 730 km north of Montreal.
By Thursday, the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci had their turn. Their sister community of Manawan is scheduled to receive the vaccine over two days next week.
But with at least nine confirmed cases of COVID-19, Kitigan Zibi is feeling the pressure while waiting for the government’s green light to vaccinate the general public.
“It’s a lot of delaying, it’s a lot of unanswered questions, it’s a lot of unknown,” Whiteduck explained.
“I feel that the anger within the community is rising – the reason being that there’s no concrete rollout game plan for First Nations that are considered ‘rural’,” he added. “Which is totally dissatisfying in my viewpoint.”
Whiteduck went straight to the top with his concerns – penning a letter to both the provincial Indigenous Affairs and Health Ministries, as well as federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller.
He is requesting 4,000 doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine “as soon as possible” on behalf of Kitigan Zibi, which has 3,600 registered members.
“The end goal of vaccination is to limit the spread in our community and to address the concerns of our vulnerable elders,” Whiteduck wrote in the letter on Jan. 5.
“The foundation of our community heavily relies on our elders. They hold (keepsake) our traditional knowledge, Anishinabemowin (traditional language), knowledge of our nomadic travel routes, family backgrounds, and provide valuable input to our members.”
While announcing extended lockdown measures on Wednesday – including imposition of an 8 p.m. curfew in all regions except Nunavik and the James Bay areas – Quebec also updated its vaccine plan.
Health Minister Christian Dube says the province hopes to have 250,000 Quebecers vaccinated by Feb. 8.
However, there’s residual confusion about how the rollout process is supposed to work among First Nations.
Quebec established a four-tier priority system for vaccine distribution with “remote First Nations” coming in fourth behind seniors, health care workers, and residents of private long-term care.
“The sad thing is, [Kitigan Zibi] has an elders’ home about five kilometres away from a seniors’ home that’s received vaccinations,” Whiteduck explained. “And our elders’ home is not even taken into consideration? That’s where it’s getting a little confusing.”
At this stage, it’s also unclear how the vaccine will be distributed to vulnerable members of the province’s Indigenous population if they live off-reserve, or if they live in a community with an active outbreak but don’t fall within Quebec’s “priority” groups.
Recent political finger-pointing over the vaccine is only complicating things.
In a jab at the federal government, Premier Francois Legault claimed Quebec could handle four times the current volume of vaccinations, but isn’t receiving adequate supplies from Ottawa.
But Pablo Rodriguez – leader of the Liberal government in the House of Commons, and an MP for Honore-Mercier – said Quebec is the one dragging its feet.
“Close to 50,000 doses of the vaccine are sleeping in Quebec’s freezers. That’s more than half of the doses delivered,” Rodriguez tweeted in French on Wednesday. “Deliveries are accelerating. We need to accelerate the cadence.”
We reached out to Quebec for clarification on the vaccine rollout, and were told the Health Ministry, regional health networks, and First Nations communities are expected to work “in collaboration” to establish individualized plans.
“Vaccination planning varies to take into account regional specificities, but the whole process is done in collaboration with the Chiefs and health directors of the Indigenous communities and Public Health,” reads and email from a Health Ministry spokesperson.
They said they were not aware of Kitigan Zibi’s recent vaccine request.
“However, according to data provided to us by Indigenous Services Canada, the total number of people aged 18 and over in this community is 1,301,” the emailed statement reads. “A status report has been requested from the CISSS de l’Outaouais. We are in expectation of it.”
“Obviously, if the community is ready to carry out the vaccination, and if the doses are available, we can notify the establishment and ensue that the logistics will be put in place as was done for the community of Opitciwan, which had a major outbreak during the holiday season,” according to the Health Ministry.
This is more of an answer than Whiteduck himself received.
“I’m saddened by the fact [APTN] was able to receive a statement, a response on our behalf – and we didn’t receive anything,” he said Friday.
“That’s what we have to deal with, unfortunately. And that’s why it’s unacceptable in terms of… when are we going to receive a vaccine?”
Ottawa is co-ordinating vaccine procurement and logistics but it’s up to provinces and territories to distribute them once delivered.
Indigenous Services Canada says it’s participating in planning tables with provinces and territories “to encourage full inclusion of Indigenous perspectives” and “support the administration and planning process of the COVID-19 vaccine for Indigenous peoples.”