With Canada’s first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out as early as next week, First Nations leaders say the federal government must prioritize vaccinating Indigenous people.
Saskatchewan treaty commissioner Mary Culbertson said Canada is legally obligated to give Indigenous communities early access to the vaccine.
“I do want to see our people prioritized because of treaty obligations,” Culbertson told Global News.
Treaty 6 has a clause that states the Crown must provide aid to Indigenous people during times of pestilence and famine. It was negotiated after European colonizers brought smallpox to Canada and decimated the buffalo population.
“This is… one of the biggest emergencies that we’re going to face in our lifetime,” Culbertson said. “Yet, First Nations have been facing emergencies… for generations.”
There have been outbreaks on reserves across Canada. Some Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable, and should be prioritized for vaccination alongside health care workers and seniors, Culbertson said.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has flagged Indigenous communities as potential priority populations, due to elevated risk of infection from overcrowded housing and infrastructure gaps.
“You have communities that don’t have water. They can’t wash their hands,” Culbertson said.
“Where the government has created those situations that you have people living in standards that are lower than the average Canadian, they have an obligation to provide priority to those people.”
Ottawa doesn’t decide priority populations
The Public Health Agency of Canada has delegated vaccine distribution to the provinces and territories.
“They will be the ones setting up the priority populations to be vaccinated in light of their respective regional/provincial epidemiology,” a spokesperson told Global News in an email.
As a result, it seems the federal government is failing to fulfill its treaty obligation, said Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) treaty legal director Eleanore Sunchild.
“It really should be the federal government because the federal government is the party in the treaty,” Sunchild said in a recent interview.
She suggested Canada provide vaccines to Indigenous health organizations, which could distribute them to specific communities.
“Prime Minister Trudeau has always stated that the most important relationship to him is the Indigenous-Canadian relationship, so here’s his chance to prove that,” she said.
Saskatchewan has identified health-care workers and long-term care residents as vulnerable populations.
The province is scheduled to release its vaccine plan on Wednesday morning.
Strategic vaccine rollout
While Culbertson is championing early access for Indigenous people, she noted some people may be wary of the vaccine due to Canada’s history of conducting medical experiments in residential schools and racially segregated hospitals.
Officials responsible for vaccine rollout must consider ethics and education to ensure people make an informed choice, she said.
“When it comes to Indigenous people… (early access) definitely has to be a priority with safeguards in place,” she said.