Manon Jeannotte is not a big fan of needles – but she couldn’t miss out on her shot to receive a dose of the Moderna vaccine this past weekend.
“There’s still a bit of stress,” Jeannotte told APTN News as a paramedic disinfected her right arm with an alcohol swab.
“Not because of the camera, but because of the vaccine.”
Jeannotte is the former chief of the Mi’gmaq community of Gespeg, situated over 900 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
Gespeg’s situation is unique in Quebec. According to Jeannotte, most of its 1,800 members live off-reserve, near urban centres.
Under Quebec’s vaccine rules – which prioritize on-reserve populations – Gespeg’s members will only become eligible for the vaccine at the same time as the general public.
However, a first-of-its-kind “Inter-Nation Vaccination Clinic” set up on Kanesatake Mohawk Territory over the weekend allowed for approximately 250 off-reserve members of Gespeg, Gesgapegiag and Listuguj to receive their first dose of the vaccine.
“When our councillors confirmed we could some to Kanesatake, I said ‘thank you,’ because otherwise we’d be in the regular system,” Jeannotte explained.
Gespeg Councillor Nadia Robertson said she knocked on a few doors trying to address the off-reserve vaccine oversight before Kanesatake stepped up to offer their help.
“The situation for the Gespeg community is particular,” Robertson said. “We’re one of the few communities in Quebec that doesn’t live on reserve.
“We make no secret that it’s difficult getting financing from the federal government, or getting help to provide services to our members.”
Robert Bonspiel, head of the Kanesatake Emergency Response Unit, said making the clinic happen took some “political wrangling behind the curtain.
“What we have accomplished here, we believe is culturally sensitive,” Bonspiel told reporters. “We believe it has to do specifically with the availability of the vaccine for our population.
“We strongly believe, in accordance with our past and our history, that we would’ve had a turnout of only about 15 per cent had we taken the vaccination clinic that was available in the neighbouring communities.”
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon described the mass vaccination campaign as an “expression of decolonization and nation-to-nation cooperation.
“The Mi’kmaq Nation and us, the Mohawk people, chose to break out of that silo that colonization has taught us – that we should be isolated in our communities,” Simon said.
“So this is a very good expression of that very nature that I think we lost along the way over the last 150 years. The [Emergency Response Unit] has proven that First Nations people, when given the right resources, can accomplish some extraordinary things.”
The vaccination agreement and clinic staging were largely bankrolled using pandemic funding provided by Indigenous Services Canada.
“This is an excellent example of how by working in partnership we can get through this,” Minister Marc Miller said via written statement.
Both provincial and Indigenous leaders also came out to Kanesatake to personally congratulate the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq nations for their effort.
“[With COVID] we were certainly reminded of the early days of the last time we had this type of crisis back 12 years ago with H1N1, and the kind of consequences that crisis had with our communities, with many more deaths than we’ve had this time around,” explained Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Ghislain Picard.
“I think this is a real prime example of the kind of collaboration that can exist between nations – and in this case, overall I think we’ve done well.”
Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere said approximately 25,000 First Nations members have already received the COVID-19 vaccine – though he admits distribution and planning were “hard” at the beginning.
“I’m happy to see numbers,” Lafreniere added. “And my colleague Marc Miller from the Federal government said he was very happy with the numbers we have in Quebec.”
However, over the weekend, Quebec surpassed 1,000 new daily cases of COVID-19 for the first time since February.
A third wave has hit the province, according to provincial Health Minister Christian Dube, but the government isn’t planning to tighten health restrictions in the short term.
On Monday, Dube told reporters a rise in cases is expected because of the increased presence of more contagious novel coronavirus variants.
For her part, Jeannotte told APTN she was happy she didn’t have to wait until June – and the full onset of the pandemic’s third wave – to receive the vaccine.
“It’s a great relief. And to know that we’re in another community – another First Nations community – I love that,” Jeannotte said.
With files from The Canadian Press