Access to the COVID-19 vaccine has been a challenge for urban Indigenous populations in Quebec, which is why some First Nations in the province are coming together to vaccinate members living off-reserve.
This weekend, around 150 Innu living in the greater Montreal area will be vaccinated at a clinic in Kanesatake, Que., after an agreement was signed between the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community and nine Innu communities in the province.
“We believe they have every right to it as we do,” said Robert Bonspiel, spokesperson for Kanesatake’s emergency response unit.
“Just because they’re not living in their community in their territory doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have access to it, so we’re happy to be of assistance.”
The clinic is open April 16 and 17 to members of Pakua Shipi, Unamen Shipu, Nutashkuan, Ekuanitshit, Uashat mak Mani-utenam, Pessamit, Essipit, Mashteuiatsh and Matimekush Lac-John.
All First Nations in Quebec have completed or begun administering first doses of vaccine to eligible members, and some have also begun second doses.
However, Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services has not prioritized Indigenous people living outside Indigenous communities for the vaccine even though the federal government and other provinces have.
“Our people in urban centres are faced with the same vulnerabilities as our people in communities and should have equal access the same as our peoples in communities,” said Ghislain Picard, the Quebec and Labrador regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
Picard and representatives of the Innu Nation Strategic Cell brought the communities together to raise awareness of the difficulty in getting access to vaccine faced by Innu living in the greater Montreal area.
He said it is unrealistic for many members to return to their communities to get their shots but variants of concern and the third wave of the pandemic make the matter urgent.
“The vaccine is the best protection we can get, as quickly as we can,” said Picard.
“That’s where we are still not very successful at getting Quebec on our side on this. The feds have said Indigenous peoples across the country will get priority but the thing is the provinces have the upper hand to decide how this is going to be rolled out and Quebec has been difficult from the outset.”
Picard said it’s a lucky situation that a community like Kanesatake found ways to open its doors to other First Nations. Last month, the community vaccinated just over half of its eligible population, and extended its clinic to 250 members of the Mi’kmaw communities of Gespeg, Gesgapegiag and Listuguj living around Montreal.
“The Emergency Response Unit has always strived to be inclusive in regards to the services we offer to Onkwehón:we (Indigenous) people who live in and around Kanesatake whether they be Kanien’kehá:ka or not,” said Bonspiel.
“We felt it was brotherly to offer our services to individuals who have been deemed priority in the national vaccination approach but didn’t necessarily have access to the vaccine itself. We thought that was a sad situation and knew we could be a part of a solution for that.”