Edmonton groups collaborate to give vaccination support to local Indigenous communities

COVID-19 vaccine - file photo.

On Sept. 29, the Edmonton Covid Rapid Response Collaborative (ECRRC) held their first event - a Sharing/Talking Circle whose sole purpose was to strategize ways to increase vaccination rates in Edmonton's Indigenous communities.

Verna Fisher and Gabrielle Chabot are ECRRC's Indigenous community outreach workers and the event organizers. They saw first-hand how covid was ravaging indigenous communities and wanted to come up with solutions on how to get more of their Indigenous community vaccinated.

The purpose of the ECRRC Sharing Circle was to strategize how to raise vaccination rates in Indigenous communities in Edmonton.

“With First Nations, Metis and Inuit (people), it is very hard (to overcome) past experience with the government,” explained Verna. “We've held pop-ups, BBQ's and other things to help them get vaccinated but it's still not enough.”

The Sharing Circle event brought together different non-profit leaders, front line workers, Elders and Knowledge Keepers to discuss how to get the message out about how important vaccines are, to more Indigenous community members.

When asked how the Sharing Circle came about, Verna's response was immediate: “I'm 58 years old and I've been living our ways for a while. I know quite a few Elders and Knowledge Keepers and the first thing I thought about was asking our wise ones.” She added, “Gabby and I have both worked as frontline workers and knew we needed to find new ways on how to 1/8 get the message out 3/8 . Having Elders, frontline workers and others all sharing - that's a whole lot of experience and education in one spot.”

ECRRC is a collaboration of 11 Edmonton social services agencies, coming together to build a framework plan to collectively respond to positive Covid cases. The overall goal of the collaborative is to flatten the curve and increase well-being by providing dignified cultural exchange, timely and relevant supports, and information to the disproportionately affected communities.

When discussing the importance of getting vaccinated, Lisa De Gara, Manager with Action for Healthy Communities said, “I'm very passionate about promoting vaccines across the different communities in Edmonton. I want to make sure everyone has the best information to make a healthy decision to get vaccinated. We 1/8 want to focus 3/8 on the impact community leaders can have and how much influence they hold. To understand that having a conversation with someone they have a meaningful relationship with can really change peoples' minds about getting vaccinated.

Bernadette Iahtail Executive Director of Creating Hope Society of Alberta agreed. She said, “I'm vaccinated myself and my whole family is and my hope is there are more people getting vaccinated. Part of 1/8 the challenge 3/8 is that we need to think about our fear and ask why we are afraid. I was nervous because of the unknown but I 1/8 now 3/8 feel safer and feel the freedom.”

Carola Cunningham, CEO of Niginan Housing Venture said that she hopes that this collaboration has a resounding impact on our community. “That it encourages our young people, our old people, our in-between people to get vaccinated to save lives. Natural medicines, which we rely on for many things, weren't enough to deal with polio, Spanish Flu, or small pox, and they aren't enough to deal with Covid-19.”

Lorette Goulet from Creating Hope Society said that she had Covid earlier this year, before vaccines were available) and she just about didn't survive. “The message we need to get across (tearfully), is please just take care of yourself,” she implored. “I'm double vaccinated now, I got it as soon as I got out of the hospital. I tell everybody I know that they need to be protected. In our communities there are a lot of people that are fearful. So, if we can get the message out and help them, that's what I would like to see.”

Tricia Smith, Executive Director of Boyle, McCauley Health Centre explained that since March, her organization has had a vaccination campaign operating out of their clinic and they have conducting outreach with their mobile clinic. “The populations that we serve are marginalized,” she said. “A good percentage of them are Indigenous, many of them are homeless/houseless. So, we are going to all the emergency shelters and all the encampments, trying to have those conversations and build those relationships of trust.”

Smith said that since the Boyle McCauley Health Centre initiative started, they have given over 3000 doses of vaccine, which is probably about 2,000 people.

“We certainly have had our share of conversations with individuals who are hesitant or outright refusing,” she noted. “Some of the ways we move people from `I don't want to get vaccinated' to `sure, I'll get the shot' is relationship. Frankly the relationship that we have with the population we serve on a day-to-day basis has been key as well as presenting the facts on a repeated basis and having those facts updated.”

There were so many myths about the vaccine in the beginning and it was really scary, said Elder Fernie Marty. “I was one of those doubters. I went to my Elders and they told me `When you pick medicines, you first put the tobacco down before you even pick the medicine. That vaccine is a medicine, put your tobacco, pray and go get that needle.' So that's what I did for both needles, and you know, nothing happened, I'm still here! And I'm grateful my family followed behind me, my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“This Sweetgrass I have here today is from a funeral that I attended yesterday in Frog Lake of one of my relatives. It was so sad to see that he died because he did not believe in this medicine.

“Some people say, 'They are blue-chipping you with that needle.' Well, it must be a pretty small chip because that needle is pretty small that went into my arm,” laughed Marty. “The medicine we pick is sacred but we don't have medicine to protect us from diseases from other countries. When they gave us blankets that had small pox, we had no defense.”

Verna and Gabrielle have arranged video responses from all the participants including what they would say to a family member or loved one to convince them to get a vaccine. Once they pool all those responses, they will use that for strategy content.

“I want to send a letter and poster to every First Nations, reserve, Metis settlement, and every other Indigenous community in Alberta,” enthused Verna. It's an ambitious goal but it's likely no match for the passion and compassion of these community leaders.\

For more information visit ECRRC.ca.