Opinion

I was recently speaking with an elder who works in traditional medicines about COVID-19 vaccines and her community.

She said she is not getting the vaccine until, in her words: “It’s proven effective.”

Winnipeg Free Press

Delivering Crucial Information.
Right Here.

Support this work for just $3.92/week

I was recently speaking with an elder who works in traditional medicines about COVID-19 vaccines and her community.

She said she is not getting the vaccine until, in her words: "It’s proven effective."

I asked her what she meant, thinking she was echoing concerns about testing, allergies or some other issue involving the roll-out of the drugs.

"No, my boy," she said. "I mean I’m wondering if it will heal."

There is suspicion surrounding COVID-19 vaccines in Indigenous communities. On Tuesday, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said, in northern communities, a small proportion of elders are refusing injections, citing "fear" and "worry" over efficacy and impacts.

Canada’s health system has often been anything but healthy for Indigenous communities. A remarkable (and alarming) amount of Indigenous interactions with the health–care system are filled with racism, danger, and even death.

Most of this is rooted in history — Canada’s health system has often been anything but healthy for Indigenous communities. A remarkable (and alarming) amount of Indigenous interactions with the health-care system are filled with racism, danger, and even death.

Indigenous peoples die in emergency rooms, neglected by nurses and doctors. Indigenous peoples go in for simple treatments and are sterilized and tested without consent. Indigenous mothers enter hospitals and lose their children. Indigenous men get turned away with obvious sicknesses. And so on and so on.

The evidence is there in the experiences of Brian Sinclair, Joyce Echaquan, and Janice Kasudluak — and these are just names we know. There are thousands more.

For almost a year, there have been a collective of Indigenous activists, leaders, and grandmothers quietly confronting a hospital in Winnipeg, charging it with systemic racism and ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. I have experienced firsthand how Indigenous patients are treated in this institution, and am monitoring their progress.

A major stumbling block is getting institutional leaders to admit there is a problem.

I felt similar confusion talking with an elder refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The message is medicine must address more than the physical body. It must also address the needs of the mind, heart and spirit, too.

I am planning to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to me. I’ve done the research and am not worried or buying into conspiracy theories — like the notion U.S. billionaire Bill Gates is trying to inject me with microchips (a May 2020 Yahoo/YouGov poll says a large percentage of Americans think this is the case).

So, what did the elder mean?

Was she talking about how Indigenous medicines seem to be doing a good job handling the impacts of the sickness, too? Since the beginning of the pandemic, Indigenous communities have been finding their own methods and medicines to deal with COVID-19.

The Matootoo Lake Medicine Lodge at Peguis First Nation, for example, has developed a tonic it’s distributing. Roseau River elder Charlie Nelson has a traditional medicine bundle he's sharing. In Sagkeeng First Nation, medicine keeper Hilda McKay Canard made traditional medicine and distributed it to elders, while the local health centre made cedar and juniper available to make boil and boost immunity and support breathing.

In each of these cases, physical medicines come with prayers, wishes, and love from hands that prepare, pick, and distribute them.

In a time where social distancing and staying home is prescribed as the way to fight the novel coronavirus, Indigenous communities are turning to activities to support each other mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — even if they cannot be together physically.

One can’t just ship a bunch of doctors, nurses, and vaccines up to Indigenous communities (or worse yet, tell them to come to you) and expect 150 years of mistreatment, violence, and mistrust to disappear.

The message is medicine must address more than the physical body. It must also address the needs of the mind, heart and spirit, too.

When Indigenous peoples gift medicines it isn’t just coming with physical benefits but a message others are cared for, thought about, and not alone.

This tackles the most devastating part of sickness: giving up. While pain and agony is awful, isolation, fear and depression is what makes people stop fighting, self-destruct, and die. Love encourages you to keep going.

This is what has been lacking for over a century-and-a-half in Canada’s health-are system when it comes Indigenous communities. Treating us as human beings.

One can’t just ship a bunch of doctors, nurses, and vaccines up to Indigenous communities (or worse yet, tell them to come to you) and expect 150 years of mistreatment, violence, and mistrust to disappear.

The medicine must come with something different: patience, kindness, and commitment.

The vaccine must come to help more than our bodies — although many can’t wait for Canada to act differently, so are taking it anyways.

A wagging finger, resentment, and complaints it’s not fair Indigenous peoples get vaccines first will never convince anyone the drug is good. In fact, these attitudes and actions are already embedded in the health-care system.

A vaccine must heal. An elder taught me that.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

   Read full biography