Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Paul Prosper is calling on Nova Scotia to implement a Mi’kmaw-specific vaccination strategy and raising concerns about the lack of Indigenous representation on the 11-member COVID-19 vaccine expert panel.
“The province needs to appreciate what is at stake if our elders get sick. Our old people hold knowledge, language and traditions that we are struggling to protect and maintain,” said Regional Chief Prosper in a press statement.
“They are at very high risk from COVID-19 and as a result, our very future as a people is at risk.”
Pictou Landing First Nation Chief Andrea Paul has been asking the province to implement a Mi’kmaw-specific vaccination strategy since the COVID-19 provincial state of emergency was declared back in March and says Mi’kmaw leaders don’t feel part of the COVID-19 conversation.
“We have to be around the table and you have to hear what our science and what our perspective is and what lens we’re coming with,” said Chief Paul.
“I think that’s important and at the end of the day I don’t think they want to fail in knowing that they didn’t do what they could to protect the Mi’kmaw population.”
In December, an 11-member vaccine expert panel made up of representatives from the Department of Health and Wellness, Nova Scotia Health Authority, IWK Health Centre and the Canadian Center for Vaccinology was set up to monitor the use of the vaccine in Nova Scotia and advise the chief medical officer of health on technical and scientific aspects the vaccination program.
Constance MacIntosh, a lawyer and expert in the field of public health among First Nation communities says the only way the province can ensure a legitimate and effective vaccine rollout across Mi’kmaw communities is to allow them to be involved and govern the process.
MacIntosh questions why there was no Indigenous representation on the vaccine expert panel and suggests the province corrects that measure as soon as possible.
“It fails to recognize that Indigenous governments are governments who are responsible for their own citizens,” said MacIntosh, who is also a law professor at Dalhousie University.
“It’s a real throwback to a very patronizing approach, the very sort that’s associated with the gross racism in health care delivery that Indigenous peoples have and continue to experience.”
The Nova Scotia Department of Health declined an interview but in a statement said they are communicating with Mi’kmaw communities and its leaders during biweekly meetings.
“The expert panel is a scientific panel to provide advice on technical and scientific aspects of our vaccine program,” said Department of Health spokesperson Marla McInnis in a statement.
“We are engaging our Mi’kmaw communities, both on and off-reserve, in a number of ways, including biweekly trilateral meetings between the Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs.”
For legitimacy and cultural reasons, Indigenous leaders need to be at the forefront and leading the vaccine rollout plan like in other jurisdictions across the country, says MacIntosh. Without that, there’s a risk of skepticism and hesitancy forming around the vaccine in First Nation communities.
“This is counter to what’s happening across the country,” said MacIntosh. “In British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, they all have Indigenous representation in the decision-making bodies and they have all prioritized getting the vaccine to those communities.”
Chief Paul is also the AFN Regional lead with the health portfolio and says the vaccine needs to be a priority when it comes to Indigenous communities, especially to protect their elders and knowledge holders.
“For us here in Nova Scotia we have to protect our language speakers as much as we can and they weren’t even considered in the first phase of the rollout plan,” said Paul.
“We have to do whatever we can to protect our knowledge holders, especially those that can speak our language.
MacIntosh says Indigenous communities need to be recognized as a priority for the vaccine, suggesting the reported rates of COVID-19 on First Nation reserves are 40 per cent higher than the general population.
Cases are low in Nova Scotia with just one new positive case being reported in the province Tuesday with 11 active cases, but that can change quickly if the virus gets into a community, and so MacIntosh stresses Mi’kmaw communities need to remain a high priority for receiving the vaccine.
“All of the conditions for fast community spread are present (in First Nations communities) from multi-generational households with lots of people in them so nobody can self isolate, to the over the occurrence of chronic disease within the community as well,” said MacIntosh, “so if the virus gets in there the outcomes are going to be worse.”
During Tuesday’s COVID-19 press briefing, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Doctor Robert Strang said the 11-member expert vaccine panel is made up of health experts in immunology and vaccinology and not the place for community engagement.
“Throughout the pandemic, I have been meeting every two weeks with the First Nations Chiefs,” said Strang. “The vaccine planning team are having an ongoing discussion with our first nations elders and the health directors of all those communities.”
Strang said Mi’kmaw communities remain a high priority for vaccination and will remain a priority when more vaccine becomes available.