OTTAWA — The federal government is working on exemptions to its newly released mandatory vaccine policy for people in remote Indigenous communities, many of which are only accessible by airplane.
The new policy calls for travellers over the age of 12 to provide proof they've received two doses of a Health Canada-approved vaccine at least 14 days before boarding a plane or train.
There are 182 communities that have been assessed by Transport Canada or the provinces and territories as "remote."
The vast majority are so isolated the only way in and out is by plane, and essential services like medical visits are not accessible by any other means of transportation.
People in Neskantaga First Nation — about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. — can only get in or out of the community by airplane in the summer, and occasionally ice roads in the winter.
"We rely on air service for pretty much everything. It's just like the highways to us," said Gary Quisess, a councillor on the First Nation.
People fly in and out of the community for food, medical appointments and even to commute to their jobs, he said, and they have no other options.
The community of 400 people, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1995, recently lifted travel restrictions and now relies heavily on tests to protect against COVID-19.
The rates of vaccination in Neskantaga are high, about 98 per cent for adults, but the policy would still have serious impacts for those who are still unvaccinated unless exemptions are made.
"I think there should be some room for people that don't get vaccinated," he said. "Where is it going to fall if a person can't get medical help?"
Quisess said the government has not reached out to their band office directly about the new vaccine mandate.
Government officials have been meeting with Indigenous organizations and representatives from provincial and territorial governments to provide possible exemptions or accommodations for remote Indigenous communities, according to a statement from the office of federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
Alghabra's office did not immediately respond to questions about which groups have been consulted, but said accommodations could include asking for a negative molecular COVID-19 test, rather than proof of full vaccination.
Quisess said that would be a relief for Neskantaga where frequent tests are already being done.
"Right now, I think there are some concerns with this new policy," he said. "But on the other side, it's a good way to try to stop the virus from spreading."
Different communities are handling the virus differently though, he said, and the accommodations may not suit them all.
Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta said he supports vaccine passports for travel in and out of his remote community, as long as there is a fair plan to help people who can't get a vaccine for medical reasons.
Athabasca Chipewyan is home to about 1,200 people, and more than 80 per cent of those who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have received them, the chief said.
As for people in his community who simply don't want to get their shot, "they're going to have to think twice about that," Adam said.
Indigenous Services Canada doesn't provide vaccine rates for First Nations. As of Oct. 5, 786,893 doses have been administered on First Nations, of which 348,757 were second doses.
Missinippi Airways, a private air carrier that provides flights to remote communities in Northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nunavut, has also not been consulted by the government about the changes, but said medical-evacuation flights will not be affected.
The new vaccine mandate for travellers is set to begin at the end of the month.
The government said there would be a grace period of one month, in which unvaccinated passengers can provide a negative test instead.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2021.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press