Kiiwetinoong MPP, Muskrat Dam First Nation leadership promoting vaccine confidence
Tim Brody - Editor
“If I have made one person change their mind, I would have been successful,” said Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who is encouraging his constituents to accept COVID-19 vaccinations. Mamakwa rolled up his sleeve on Feb. 1 in Muskrat Dam First Nation to lead by example and accept the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on day one of Operation Remote Immunity, after being invited to do so by Muskrat Dam First Nation Chief Gordon Beardy and members of his community.
Co-developed through a partnership with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and Ornge, Ontario’s provider of air ambulance and critical care transport services, Operation Remote Immunity will provide hundreds of residents in remote, fly-in First Nation communities with access to the Moderna vaccine.
Vaccination teams under the direction of Ornge will travel to 31 northern, remote NAN communities and Moosonee over the next three months to deliver and administer the vaccine to residents who wish to receive it.
The vaccine will be available to community members 18 years of age or older.
Last week, vaccination teams visited Neskantaga, Slate Falls, Muskrat Dam, Fort Severn, Webequie and Kashechewan. Operation Remote Immunity aims to complete its work by April 30.
“Residents of fly-in First Nations communities are at disproportionate risk during the pandemic,” said Greg Rickford, Minister of Indigenous Affairs. “Operation Remote Immunity is a critical part of Ontario’s phased vaccination rollout plan to protect the most vulnerable populations in the province and I commend all of the partners involved in delivering on this vital work.”
“The Moderna vaccine offers protection and hope for Indigenous communities across the North. It is an honour and a privilege for Ornge to work closely with our partners at Nishnawbe Aski Nation as we ensure community access to this life-saving vaccine,” said Dr. Homer Tien, President and CEO of Ornge. “We thank the community leadership for allowing our teams to begin this important work, and we appreciate the many residents who are providing their assistance by encouraging participation, setting up the clinics, and translating. This effort would not be possible without their support.”
“Today marks a significant step towards ending the COVID-19 pandemic in Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Vaccination teams are being welcomed in communities across our territory, and I thank Ornge for their dedication to making this a successful rollout,” shared Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. “The number of community members giving their consent to receive the vaccine is encouraging. I look forward to this momentum continuing within the coming days as more teams enter our communities. We all have a part to play in ending this pandemic. This includes receiving the vaccine if you can to protect those in your community who are not eligible to receive it.”
Fiddler’s mother, 85-year-old Eunice Fiddler, was the first resident of the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre’s William A. George Extended Care Facility to receive the Moderna vaccine in Sioux Lookout on Jan. 7. Her daughter Margaret Beardy was on site to support her and translated for her, “She said that she wants her people to accept whatever is offered for them for vaccinations.”
In his video updates, Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) Public Health Physician Dr. John Guilfoyle has been encouraging eligible residents of the 33 communities SLFNHA serves to make the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they have the opportunity to do so.
Two members of the vaccination team which visited Fort Severn last week said they felt Mamakwa showing leadership by rolling up his sleeve and accepting the vaccine will help increase the number of people willing to accept the vaccine.
“For sure. There are six communities the vaccine has been rolled out in. So those six communities actually chat. They compare their stats. They compare the percentage of the community that’s been vaccinated. So it’s a huge motivator. I feel like they’ve come together. We’re their guests. We just try to answer questions if they have any. As more and more get vaccinated, they trust that the vaccine is safe and they communicate with their community and they come in,” shared Anita Rao.
Based in Sioux Lookout last week and travelling to and from Fort Severn each day, Vivian, shared, “We bring in the vaccine. We counsel if they have questions about the vaccine. We do their consent and we give them the vaccine and we do post-op as well.”
She said on Friday that vaccine hesitancy was high at the beginning of the week, adding that building trust among community members was of paramount importance. “We were there to try to vaccinate as many of the adults as we can. This community has about 250 adults, roughly. We’ve been successful with 128. On day one, they only had six people that were willing to accept the vaccine.” Each day she said the vaccination team saw more and more people.
Ornge shared in a news release last week that, “Vaccination teams and partners in these efforts consist of highly trained medical professionals representing a number of organizations, including the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority (WAHA), the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA), the First Nations Inuit Health Branch (FNHIB), the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, northern Paramedic Services, the Porcupine Health Unit, among others. Team members have received the full COVID-19 vaccine and have undergone cultural training prior to this operation.”
Mamakwa said he is trying to turn vaccine hesitancy into vaccine confidence.
“It’s really important that we keep on the messaging that it’s safe and that people get vaccinated more. I think the rollout of the vaccine is coming at the right time for the Far North,” he shared.
“I’m glad the government decided to focus on fly-in remote First Nation communities because of the limited access to health care services, I think that’s number one. When there’s overcrowding, limited access to health care, and also the boil water advisories, they’re vulnerable should COVID-19 hit the communities.
“Typically we’re not, Indigenous people, First Nations people, are usually not the first in line to get service or anything like that, so this is kind of unprecedented. Perhaps that’s one of the ways why people are hesitant… they’re not used to that. They’re not used to being at the front of the line,” Mamakwa said.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve been trying to encourage, to certainly take the vaccine, again that’s one of the things when we talk about, over the last couple of days just talking to people, we talk about vaccine hesitancy and the word that’s been kind of thrown at me has been vaccine confidence. For our people to be confident that it’s safe. I’m just grateful that I can be part of the movement to help improve the uptake of the vaccinations in our communities… that’s my role, it’s not just First Nations, but it’s the riding of Kiiwetinoong as well, the residents of Red Lake, Sioux Lookout Pickle Lake… to encourage people to take the vaccine,” he commented.
In a Feb. 1 post on his Facebook page, Mamakwa shared, “I want to show people that the shot is safe and I trust in the science. With the vaccine, we will be protecting ourselves, our languages and our traditions for future generations.”
“I’m filled with hope for the people of Kiiwetinoong,” Mamakwa said of the vaccine rollout in a video he posted on his Facebook page Feb. 1.
“The vaccine is 95 per cent effective. If we all get vaccinated, we will be able to protect ourselves and our communities and our loved ones,” he said in the video, adding, “Immunization rates in our communities are very low, but let’s change that trend today. Let’s take a step together, get vaccinated and protect our communities. As more of us become vaccinated, the end of this pandemic will be in sight. Our languages, our traditions, will be able to be passed down from our Elders to future generations. Join me, by getting vaccinated, and let’s put an end to this pandemic.”
Mamakwa said he was unsure if he should accept the vaccine last week due to the optics of the situation. He said Muskrat Dam’s leadership said in a letter, “We want you to take the vaccine with us to encourage communities, encourage individuals, that the vaccine is safe because of the numbers that they were getting, I know Muskrat Dam is a pro-vaccine community, and at that time they were at about 60 to 65 per cent had signed up of the residents that were 18 and over. A couple days ago they reported at about 85 per cent.”
He said he also received support from Dr. Guilfoyle to show leadership and show people the vaccine is safe.
“You are being invited by the community. The whole community wants you here. That’s what he (Chief Gordon Beardy) told me, I said, I’ll be there,” Mamakwa shared.
“The first thing they did was have a blessing ceremony for the vaccine. The Chief spoke. I spoke. I said a few words. The Elder spoke and then they did the blessing. That’s when I knew, that I had made the right decision, because it was so moving. It was so powerful to be there with the community.”
Mamakwa further shared that as he was about to be vaccinated, a doctor asked if he was the MPP for the riding. Mamakwa said the doctor told him that he works in Southern Ontario as a doctor in a hospital. Mamakwa said this doctor told him that he works with COVID-19 patients directly and sees how they suffer, adding that he did not want to see people in the northern Indigenous communities suffer like that. Mamakwa said this doctor told him that he hoped Mamakwa getting vaccinated would change people’s minds. “That’s when I knew, bang again, I made the right choice,” Mamakwa said.
“The atmosphere in the place, you could sense some confidence, you could sense that they were happy because I could hear people laughing… they welcomed the vaccine. They welcomed the teams. It was very encouraging,” Mamakwa said.
Chief Gordon Beardy, Community Councilors and Leaders in Muskrat Dam also demonstrated their leadership and support for the vaccine by being some of the first in line to receive the Moderna vaccine on Feb. 1.
A team from Ornge was on site to administer the vaccine and a team from Independent First Nation Alliance (IFNA) was on hand to provide operations, logistics, communications, and safety support to the community.
Chief Beardy said “a lot was involved logistically in terms of organizing a team, finding a suitable space, managing community lists and working with all of the partners involved.”
In addition to logistics, “we also needed to do extensive surveying about the community’s opinion towards the vaccine as well as conducting a comprehensive education and promotion program to help give members the best possible information about the vaccine,” Roy Fiddler, the community Pandemic Lead said. “Like anywhere,” added Chief Beardy “some of our members did not want the vaccine, others experienced vaccine hesitancy due to disinformation, religious beliefs or simply a lack of access to accredited sources of information.”
“In addition to the community’s vaccination team IFNA, the community’s Tribal Council, supported the delivery with their Health Services team, including nurses, physicians, and administrative support. They also went to the community in advance, on January 28 to assist with public health education, vaccination clinic site selection and set-up,” IFNA shared in a news release last week.
CEO Mathew Hoppe stated, “We simply offered extra hands and organized support to Chief, Council and the Community who have been planning for some time and really had things well in hand. Other organizations such as the Sioux Lookout First Nation Health Authority (SLFNHA), Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and the Canadian Rangers were also involved in a variety of support roles.”
According to Chief Beardy “our efforts were very successful with 86 per cent of our eligible community members (aged 18 and over) vaccinated and 168 doses administered over the past three days. Like everyone, Muskrat Dam wants to see an end to this pandemic. We did our part, and this week hopefully marks the beginning of seeing that come to fruition.”