Frustrated Walpole Island First Nation wants governments to fulfill vaccine priority promises

·5 min read
Residents of Walpole Island First Nation will be able to enter the community unimpeded.
Residents of Walpole Island First Nation will be able to enter the community unimpeded.

(Chris Ensing/CBC - image credit)

A First Nation community in Lambton County says governments are failing to provide it with vaccines doses in a timely manner, despite Indigenous communities being listed as a priority group under the province's vaccine rollout plan,

Overall, Lambton Public Health says of the 1,200 vaccine doses it has received so far, 66 have gone to the region's three First Nation communities: Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Kettle & Stony Point First Nation and Walpole Island First Nation.

Walpole Island First Nation Chief Charles Sampson, says this far into the vaccine distribution he's concerned with the amount his 5,000 member community has been allocated.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, as well as local MPs and MPPs, Sampson says they need to provide the community "the protection we have been promised."

"I am very frustrated, I guess, in the total failure by the federal government and the province, I guess, in terms of making these types of promises and raising the expectation of our people to know that they would be receiving the vaccine to help them fight off and protect them from the COVID-19 virus," he said, adding that the newfound variants add increased concern.

Walpole Island First Nation Chief Charles Sampson says he is 'concerned' for his community and wants the different levels of government to live up to their vaccine priority promises.
Walpole Island First Nation Chief Charles Sampson says he is 'concerned' for his community and wants the different levels of government to live up to their vaccine priority promises.

Walpole Island First Nation Chief Charles Sampson says he is 'concerned' for his community and wants the different levels of government to live up to their vaccine priority promises.

As of Friday, Walpole Island First Nation has had 50 cases since the start of the pandemic, 14 of which remain active.

Progress made in Indigenous vaccine rollout: government

Earlier this week, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the nationwide push to prioritize First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities for the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to bear fruit, and that vaccination rates in those communities are now significantly higher than those reported elsewhere.

According to the latest data, more than 83,000 doses have been administered so far in more than 400 Indigenous communities.

Twenty-five per cent of adults in these communities have received at least one shot — a rate six times higher than the one for the general population.

At this time, under Ontario's Phase 1 vaccine distribution list, First Nations elder care homes are a top priority. The province anticipates this phase to be completed by March.

Though COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in Ontario in mid-December, Lambton County was among several other regions in the province not initially allocated any due to their low case rates.

At the end of January, the region finally received its first doses. By Feb. 13, the health unit said Indigenous elder care home residents who wanted the vaccine had received the first shot.

Over the next week, the health unit said it is expecting to receive more than 8,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

It's unclear how many of these will go to the region's First Nation communities, but on Walpole Island alone, Sampson says they have about 1,500 seniors.

Outbreak could devastate community

In a survey Walpole conducted with its senior population — anyone 60 years and older — director of operations for the community, James Jenkins, said about half of them want the vaccine.

"I think the tension really is in a First Nation community because of underlying health conditions in many of our members, if we experienced a very large outbreak, it could be devastating," Jenkins said.

"That's why we're taking extra steps to mitigate the spread of the virus within our own community."

Direction of operations for Walpole Island First Nation, James Jenkins, says their community is at risk given the number of underlying health conditions.
Direction of operations for Walpole Island First Nation, James Jenkins, says their community is at risk given the number of underlying health conditions.

Direction of operations for Walpole Island First Nation, James Jenkins, says their community is at risk given the number of underlying health conditions.

Locally, Jenkins said they are lifting their own stay-at-home order on Sunday and will have the region move into a modified version of the province's 'red-control' COVID-19 zone.

"We would like to see a review where the decision makers at the top are keeping in mind the original priorities in terms of who are the vulnerable populations that should be vaccinated first for most effectiveness," Jenkins said.

But, Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation Chief Jason Henry told CBC News that while the rollout has been slow, he's not frustrated with it and was not part of Sampson's letter.

"My hope is that enough vaccines are made available to us ... for both on and off reserve members [and] those that wish to be vaccinated have the chance to access that within the next couple of months," Henry said, adding that his community has about 1,500 total members.

So far COVID-19 has been contained within his region, with one active case remaining on Friday and 13 total cases to date.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation has had 20 cases since the start of the pandemic, with three active cases as of Friday.

Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation Chief Jason Henry says he knows the vaccine rollout has been slow and hopes they'll get enough soon to vaccinate their community.
Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation Chief Jason Henry says he knows the vaccine rollout has been slow and hopes they'll get enough soon to vaccinate their community.

Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation Chief Jason Henry says he knows the vaccine rollout has been slow and hopes they'll get enough soon to vaccinate their community.

Meanwhile in Windsor-Essex, the most recent figures show that 57 Indigenous people have received the first dose of the vaccine. Locally, the health unit said 9,500 people identify as Indigenous.

CBC News reached out to confirm this number with the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre on Friday but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile Chatham-Kent Public Health said the region's one Indigenous elder care home has received doses for residents, but could not provide a number on how many have gotten the shot.