Indigenous leaders take to radio, social media to encourage vaccination

A familiar voice crackled as members of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) in Southend flicked on their radios earlier this month.
From receivers on kitchen countertops and car radios, PBCN Chief Peter Beatty patiently described receiving a COVID-19 shot as the far north east embarked on a fast-paced vaccination drive. He spoke mostly in Cree, encouraging older band members to get the shot and giving his listeners a dose of reliable information over the airwaves.
Vaccine hesitancy is a challenge throughout Canada. In Indigenous communities it carries an extra challenge: building trust in a health care system that has been accused of neglecting and abusing them.
"We could not just dismiss these concerns. Rather, we have to walk with the communities," said Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) medical health officer Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka.
Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been proven safe and effective in the same trials any jab goes through, is widespread. In Indigenous communities, Ndubuka said "experiences of the past and mistrust of the system" add to that challenge.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said there's a difference between hesitancy in the general Canadian population and hesitancy in Indigenous communities, which he believes stems from generations of traumatic experiences with the medical system.
He noted the recent death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman who filmed Quebec hospital staff abusing her before her death, and a report from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond in British Columbia that found anti-Indigenous racism was prevalent in the health care system.
"You see that hesitancy that is based perhaps on experience that someone's grandmother has experienced, or they've experienced, or that their father has experienced. It's based in reality," Miller said last week.
University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine agrees. The director of the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit said its latest poll found that a strong majority of Saskatchewan residents wanted a vaccine when it was their turn, but found slightly more undecided populations in rural areas, as well as in Indigenous and newcomer communities.
"There’s less trust in systems because of that legacy of colonization, that legacy of hurt, particularly from the medical system," Muhajarine said, adding that a successful campaign could help repair that trust.
First Nations in Saskatchewan have not only rolled out the vaccine quickly, but taken robust steps to communicate reliable information about the vaccines. That's led to some progress in the far north: the wider region has seen a relatively fast rollout relative to its population. According to the province, 1,353 doses have been distributed in the far north west, 320 in far north central and 1,637 in the far north east as of Jan. 19.
NITHA has encouraged chiefs it sees as "influencers and ambassadors" to share their vaccinations on social media and the radio, as Beatty did. It has also crafted communications in Dene and Cree to eliminate language barriers.
Pauline Clarke, a PBCN Cree and English radio announcer, brought Beatty on air after his shot. Every other day, Clark takes COVID-19 questions from anonymous listeners and interviews health professionals and leaders like Beatty. Clarke said using both English on Cree to share reliable information has made listeners more confident about the vaccine.
“We reach more people that way. Not everybody has Facebook. Not everybody has TV,” she said. “Everyone expects us to be on.”
Miller said many Indigenous communities in Canada have "really good uptake" of the vaccine, adding that inoculating elders had helped dispel any hesitation around the vaccine. 
"When people see their elders getting vaccinated, they say, 'Well, I'm a 25-year-old. If my grandmother can do it, I can do it,' " Miller said.
 There may be few easy answers to these challenges. However, Ile-à-la-Crosse Mayor Duane Favel said he breathed a bit easier when he saw his dad and niece receive the vaccine.
He knew it would keep them safe — and he knew seeing it happen would prove the vaccine is safe, he said.
"There is some fear about taking the vaccine throughout the world, and we're no different in Northern Saskatchewan," Favel said in an interview earlier this month.
"It's wonderful that we're getting vaccinated, but we also need to get the messaging right."
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