Questions mount over lack of COVID-19 vaccination plan for Ontario’s urban Indigenous communities

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Doug Ford under fire for comments made to Indigenous MPP'
Coronavirus: Doug Ford under fire for comments made to Indigenous MPP
WATCH ABOVE: Premier Doug Ford is under fire for another heated exchange in question period. A few weeks ago Ford was accused of misogyny for comparing Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's voice to "nails on a chalkboard." Now he's accused of discrimination against an Indigenous NDP MPP. Travis Dhanraj explains why – Mar 11, 2021

If you were paying attention to provincial politics recently, you likely saw coverage of a dust-up between Premier Doug Ford and MPP Sol Mamakwa during question period.

Mamakwa, the NDP’s Indigenous and treaty relations critic and the representative for the riding of Kiiwetinoong, was trying to ask a question about the government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan for urban indigenous communities. That subject, however, was drowned out by Ford accusing Mamakwa of jumping the queue to get his shot.

Even as the controversy fades, the issue Mamakwa tried to raise has not.

While certain public health units in Ontario are focusing on vaccinating Indigenous residents, a comprehensive provincewide strategy for those who live in big cities is still something that remains unclear. Mamakwa, Indigenous leaders, and health experts said the lack of detail and planning is a major concern.

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“Where is the plan for the rollout? I was asking specifically because of the increases in cases not only in Toronto but also in Thunder Bay,” Mamakwa reiterated again on Wednesday.

Dr. Lisa Richardson, the strategic lead in Indigenous Health at Women’s College Hospital and a co-lead in Indigenous medical education at the University of Toronto, highlighted the importance of having a dedicated strategy because Indigenous peoples are at a higher risk of having COVID-19 and a higher risk of having severe complications.

She said so far she’s felt Indigenous communities in urban centres have been left to figure things out on their own.

“It has felt very grassroots, but I would say grassroots to the point of feeling like we have not had the support that we needed to ensure that it was coordinated,” Richardson told Global News.

“In early February when I was trying to work with Anishnawbe Health to set up a vaccination strategy for hundreds of people I felt very alone.”

She was also part of Operation Remote Immunity, a robust Ontario government initiative to get vaccines to rural and remote fly-in communities. Richardson praised the government for that strategy, but said it needs to address a major gap when it comes to dealing with First Nations peoples in urban centres.

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“In Toronto, we’re looking at 80,000 Indigenous people. So, the numbers, the volume of people is high and people are hard to reach because they’re not in a single geographic area,” she said.

“If we had actually thought about that then I think the planning would have gone into it.”

Dr. Janet Smylie is one of Canada’s first Métis physicians and is a scientist with St. Michael’s Hospital. She has focused her career on addressing inequities when it comes to the health of Indigenous peoples and is part of the grassroots effort in urban centres. Smylie agreed the government should be doing a lot more.

“One out of four of the First Nations people living in the urban epicentre of Toronto are functionally homeless. About nine out of 10 are living below the low-income cut-off and just under 40 per cent of the First Nations community living in the city of Toronto have two or more chronic diseases. All of these factors are linked to increased spread of COVID,” she said.

“We’ve seen multiple outbreaks, including a complex outbreak at one of the Indigenous shelters here that we’re just dealing with.”

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In order to combat further outbreaks, Smylie said she wants to see a parallel response to Operation Remote Immunity in big cities.

“The circumstances are somewhat different, but also shared. We have closer access to hospitals and health care providers in Toronto, but unfortunately often avoid or have limited access to those hospitals and health care providers because of attitudinal and systemic racism,” she said.

Mamakwa agreed there are deep-rooted hurdles to deal with when it comes to the vaccination rollout.

“We’ve never been in front of the line. When we talk about access to health services, we’re always back of the line, and that’s one of the main issues I think we need to be able to deal with,” he said.

However, Mamakwa said he is also hopeful the government will reach across the aisle and enlist his expertise and that of Indigenous leaders to tackle the issue.

“I was involved in health policy and health administration for 10 years before I became an MPP, so I have a very good understanding of the federal side of health programming and not only that on the provincial legislation side,” he said.

Mamakwa said he contacted Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford, but added he didn’t hear back. He called that lack of response “telling.”

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“It’s not about the health and wellness of the people, but it’s about partisanship,” he said.

Global News contact Rickford’s office along with the offices of Health Minister Christine Elliot and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones to ask what the government’s vaccination plan is for urban Indigenous communities moving forward.

Alexander Puddifant, a spokesperson for Rickford, emphasized Indigenous communities are included in phase one of the government’s vaccination plan. However, he then pointed to the federal government’s provision of COVID-19 vaccines.

“Based on the advice of both the First Nation and urban Tables, Ontario is prioritizing urban Indigenous elders and seniors that are 55-plus, living in congregate settings or otherwise vulnerable, including in Toronto, and will be proceeding to broader mass vaccination as vaccine supply and capacity allow,” Puddifant said.

“We are ready to ramp up our distribution plan immediately. The issue we face is the uncertainty around supply. We need the federal government to provide us with clarity on the number of vaccines we are getting and when we can expect them.”

— With files from Nick Westoll

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