By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is cautioning First Nations communities to do what is best for them as provinces move forward in lifting restrictive measures to control the coronavirus pandemic.
It was a similar statement RoseAnne Archibald delivered to Ontario First Nations as their regional chief when COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
“Essentially I was recommending stronger measures for First Nations given that we have so many underlying conditions and social determinants of health and living conditions, and some communities don’t have proper drinking water. I’ve always been an advocate of erring on the side of caution when it comes to measures for First Nations in order to protect our most vulnerable people especially our Elders, our knowledge keepers,” said Archibald.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Archibald recommended that Ontario First Nations communities lock down.
Lockdown measures, including setting up barriers, manning roadblocks, closing schools, limiting numbers in social gatherings, and implementing curfews, were used by First Nations right across the country to stop the spread of the virus. First Nations were successful in their efforts during the first wave.
However, as the virus moved on to different variants, including Delta and now the prevalent Omicron, First Nations communities have been hit hard.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Derek Fox is urging First Nations to remain vigilante and urging the Ontario government to accept the decisions taken by NAN communities.
“While numbers may be in decline in some parts of the province, we continue (to) see extremely high numbers of COVID-19 across our Nation. This virus and its variants remain a serious threat to our people and our communities, with some experiencing their highest numbers since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Fox in a news release.
He said although data may back Ontario’s decision to lift restrictions in some parts of the province, that did not include the north.
“Strict protocols have been enacted in many of our communities and will remain in effect at the discretion of local leadership. Our communities are self-governing, and their decisions regarding pandemic restrictions do not have to be made in step with the province. The decisions made by our leaders are final and must be respected by everyone concerned,” said Fox.
Currently, there are 651 active cases of COVID-19 reported in 25 NAN communities. As cases increase across the region, five NAN communities are now under a state of emergency and have suspended non-essential and inter-community travel.
In late 2020 vaccines began to be rolled out but vaccine hesitancy on First Nations made initial uptake low. There was also a shortage of staff to deliver the vaccines and a shortage of facilities in which to do the work.
Now, say the latest figures from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), vaccine uptake has climbed.
As of Feb.15, 2022, more than 86 per cent of individuals ages 12 and older in First Nations, Inuit and territorial communities have received a second dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, and 23 per cent have received a third or booster shot. More than 45 per cent of children ages five to 11 have received at least one dose.
ISC reports that as of Feb. 16, there are 3,762 active cases of COVID-19 in First Nations communities.
“I think having vaccines puts us in a different place than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. At the same time, I believe we still need to be a little more cautious of the rest of society and determine our own opening-up plans,” said Archibald.
ISC’s Operation REMOTE IMMUNITY 3.0, approved on Nov. 10, 2021, has rolled out support from the Canadian Rangers for provincial vaccination programs in remote communities in Ontario. The latest date for providing that support, at this time, is March 2, approved for Kashechewan First Nation and Attawapiskat First Nation.
Military also provided support previously for First Nations in Quebec and Manitoba.
“It really depends on vaccine rates. If you have a community that has a very high vaccine rate, then COVID can come in there and be certainly less harmful and we’ve seen that in many cases where vaccinated people have milder symptoms and they’re not ending up in hospital,” said Archibald.
Archibald was selected by the Toronto Star this past December as one of 20 people “who took on the biggest job of the pandemic and helped Ontario get its shots.”
In December 2020, Archibald, then Ontario regional chief, was named to the province’s nine-member COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force. She was one of three people of colour on the task force.
Shari Narine is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Windspeaker.Com . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.