First Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine Prioritized for First Nations, but is it Enough?

By: Jin Xu

Due to the forward thinking of many First Nations communities shutting their gates at the first signs of the COVID-19 crisis back in early summer of 2020, these communities managed to contain the virus. However, once winter arrived, the combination of COVID-19 being more virulent in the winter due to dry air conditions allowing for more transmission, and the remoteness and overcrowding due to lack of adequate housing in some of these communities, we have witnessed a drastic increase in cases in Indigenous communities. Recently, cumulative cases have spiked to approximately 4 times the previous total entering November, a definite sign that the current practices aren’t enough to protect these already at-risk communities.

The cases are mostly centered in the Prairies and British Columbia, with a recent spike in Quebec. However, Canadian governments seem to have picked 2021 as the year to rectify their previous mistakes and begin to take steps to begin to repair relationships with Indigenous communities on a number of fronts. Alongside the recently tabled Bill C-15, which attempts to add portions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to domestic law, provincial governments are stepping up by prioritizing First Nations communities for the first available doses of the COVID vaccine.

Provincial Plans

In British Columbia, 10,700 doses of the vaccine are being set aside for isolated and remote First Nations communities out of the 54,625 doses they received. However, this is only the first steps as over 270,000 First Nations people live in British Columbia and approximately one third of those live in rural communities difficult to reach. Of the communities, the province focused on the communities which are not accessible by road, such as the Ahousat, a Nuu-chah-nulth community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Manitoba’s response is even more targeted, prioritizing First Nations for 5,300 out of their estimated 15,000 available doses. In addition, Manitoba has decided to include First Nations organizations in the decision-making process of which communities are most in need of the vaccine. They are working with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs as well as 3 other Indigenous groups.

Ontario’s “Operation Remote Immunity” is the plan that the province came up with to fly vaccines into remote communities in the far north of the province, a plan which is slated to begin in February. Some test flights have already occurred, providing vaccines to the communities of Sioux Lookout, Moose Factory, Attawapiskat and Fort Albany.

In addition, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are also prioritizing remote First Nations communities with their available doses.

However, there are still provinces facing criticism, such as Quebec, where Dylan Whiteduck, a First Nations Chief, is speaking out against the lack of transparency in the process. He and many other communities are asking questions about how provincial governments are determining how individual communities fit into their vaccine rollout plans. Although the fourth priority group in Quebec’s plan is “isolated and remote communities”, there are no guidelines which denote which communities fit into this description and no mechanisms to ensure fair process. This becomes especially apparent when it seems that First Nations communities in Quebec have received only approximately two to three thousand doses, when Quebec has 87,500 doses at hand.

Moving Forward

The availability of the vaccines remain a key point of contention. It still remains to be seen whether or not Canada will choose to implement the measures set out in part 12 of the emergency legislation on  COVID-19, which allows the government to circumvent Intellectual Property law and produce the vaccine themselves if supply cannot meet demand. However, this process is very rarely seen in the western world.

As can be seen, the trend towards the prioritized treatment of First Nations communities, which have been disproportionately burdened by the COVID-19 crisis, remains an exception and not the norm. The issue raised by Dylan Whiteduck is a key issue that plagues the rolling out of the vaccine in all provinces and territories of Canada. In such a sensitive and difficult time, allowing governments to control almost all aspects of the vaccine rollout without transparency nor accountability measures is yet another way that First Nations peoples become disenfranchised in society. This situation is analogous to the Bill-197 omnibus legislation in Ontario drastically altering the Environmental Assessment Act without any consultation or consideration of Indigenous interests, also negatively impacting First Nations communities the most.

Reconciliation is an ongoing process, and not one that can be delayed until other pressing matters are resolved.