COMMENTARY: When it comes to vaccines, Canada needs to earn Indigenous, Black people’s trust

Click to play video: 'Confronting anti-indigenous racism in health care' Confronting anti-indigenous racism in health care
Confronting anti-indigenous racism in health care – Feb 5, 2021

I’m a Black and Mi’kmaw journalist originally from Elsipogtog First Nation, and knowing the history of colonization of Turtle Island, and the abuse and systemic racism vulnerable populations have endured in the health-care system, one can understand why my communities may be hesitant of the vaccines now available in Canada for COVID-19.

As government and medical institutions stress the need for herd immunity, the collective blood trauma from my communities asks: What’s changed? Why should we trust you now when our collective history has only proven your willingness to hurt us?

Canadians need to learn about our history, including the history of medical abuse, experiments and forced sterilization.

Knowing our history may help people understand why a Black or Indigenous patient is showing signs of intergenerational trauma when they enter an examination room — and why some of us don’t enter those rooms at all.

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Read more: Report links racism, poor Indigenous health outcomes in B.C. healthcare

In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC Commission) released a report detailing the countless stories of abuse at residential schools, as well as stories of dental, nutritional and medical experiments at tuberculosis (TB) sanatoriums.

“Hospitalization was also a difficult experience. Children sent to sanatoria were often confined to their beds,” according to the TRC Commission report.

Other survivors told the commission their concerns were ignored when they sought medical attention, with one survivor detailing she has problems with her leg to this day because of the neglect she received at a hospital.

“I got damage on my leg, and I think it’s from that fall that never got addressed… when they brought me to the hospital.”

The report went on to say some “students who were hospitalized sometimes never returned.”

In 2018, a Mi’kmaw nurse, Darline Augustine, told me her father was hesitant to go in for a procedure because he spoke Mi’kmaw first and feared the staff wouldn’t understand him. He had to translate what they were saying from English into Mi’kmaw and back out in English. As well, some English words have no Mi’kmaw translation.

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Imagine our Indigenous languages being treated like foreign languages in our own homelands, while medical staff can grow frustrated with patients whose first language isn’t English.

Read more: Canada’s school systems are failing to address colonial past, educators say

Recent disclosures of Indigenous women being forcefully sterilized continues to prove communities of colour shouldn’t trust these colonial institutions. Indigenous people were seen as a problem that needed fixing and laws were passed to prevent Indigenous women from giving birth — this is why people with historical knowledge of the treatment of Indigenous people equate what we went through to genocide.

I feel Black and Indigenous populations stand to gain a lot from herd immunity. COVID-19 has stripped us of our ability to gather. And gatherings like cookouts and powwows are such a source of joy, but they seem so far away — and it will take a vaccinated population to bring them back safely.

So, again I ask: How do you get people to trust an institution that’s largely traumatized them? It starts with the institutions rebuilding that trust by understanding who we are and where we’re coming from.

Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation, currently working out of Indian Island First Nation as a freelance reporter and homemaker.


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