Toronto Life

Travelling to northern Ontario to vaccinate Indigenous people on fly-in reserves was the most incredible experience of my life

This past winter, I travelled to northern Ontario to vaccinate Indigenous people on fly-in reserves. It was the most incredible experience of my life

- By Suzanne Shoush

My mom is Coast Salish and my dad is Sudanese. Growing up in Edmonton, I thought I would become a university math professor, but instead I took a winding pathway that led me to become a doctor, and I now work in community medicine. In January, I was selected to participat­e in Operation Remote Immunity, a program delivering thousands of vaccines to 31 fly-in northern Ontario communitie­s in the dead of winter. It’s the work of Ornge, Ontario’s air ambulance, in partnershi­p with the province and Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nations in northern Ontario. Fly-in communitie­s don’t have adequate access to health care—thus the urgency of vaccinatio­n. As Indigenous people, we’ve never been first in line for anything, whether it be infrastruc­ture, water or internet. It’s so unusual to be offered something ahead of others.

I spent two weeks with the program: first in Webequie First Nation, a beautiful Ojibway reserve about 600 kilometres from Thunder Bay, with an eligible vaccine population of about 400 people; and then in Sandy Lake, a much larger Oji-Cree community near Sioux Point, with about 1,350 adults eligible for the vaccine. Both reserves are only accessible by air or ice roads. Every morning, our team would meet in the hotel lobby at 6:30 a.m. then head to the base. We’d load up the equipment, including emergency food and water, plus sleeping bags, cots, blankets and satellite phones—in case we got stuck on the reserve, or our plane had to make an emergency landing. We flew little six-seaters: the pilot wouldn’t let you get on the plane unless you were dressed for survival. The Moderna vaccines were stored in a Credo Cube—a deep freezer that’s designed to keep them from being shaken. We were only allowed to take what we could use in a day, and we never wasted a dose.

The community set up their vaccinatio­n site in an elementary school. We’d start each day’s clinic by gathering and saying a prayer and a land acknowledg­ment, and we’d smudge over the vaccine and ourselves. Then we’d have a 14-hour day, vaccinatin­g several hundred people, ranging from 18 to 90 years old. The first day was devoted to vaccinatin­g the elders, community leaders and those with high-risk health conditions. Then anyone who wanted a vaccine would get one. In Sandy Lake, we did more than 1,000 shots, and ended up vaccinatin­g almost 95 per cent of the eligible population.

I’ll never forget one 70-something woman I met in Webequie. She spoke Oji-Cree, describing her fear of medical violence, experiment­ation and the pandemic through a translator. She said, “I went to residentia­l school, and I can’t get hurt anymore.” Holding her hand, I told her that my mother’s family survived residentia­l schools, and that we didn’t need to do the vaccinatio­n right away because I would never knowingly hurt her. She sat there silently for so long. Suddenly, in English, she said, “I’ll take the vaccine.” I laughed so hard—she could speak English all along, but she refused to do so on principle until she realized that my mother was Indigenous.

While in the community, we did Facebook Live sessions and radio appearance­s and held teas with elders, all to promote the vaccine. There was even a “black radio”—a walkie-talkie with everyone tuned in to the same frequency. Elders and community leaders were amazing on the radio, speaking mostly Oji-Cree, and the Facebook Live sessions were a fantastic way to let people know how many doses were left that day, or when they could come during a lull. The elders were so funny. They said things like, “The only thing we want to know is if the vaccine will improve our sex lives!”

There was so much humour there, and so many amazing, talented people. We did home visits for people who are homebound, and they would just be chilling at their houses, making a beautiful pair of moccasins or beading something miraculous. We were allowed to bring 25 pounds of luggage onto the planes, and I always packed fruit, plus things people asked for, like nail polish, shampoo, toothpaste and garbage bags. I even started my own unofficial trading post—I’d buy supplies the community needed from Walmart and trade them for beaded earrings from the reserve.

Now that I’m back, I’m helping to prioritize the vaccine for the city’s Indigenous population—in Toronto alone, there are approximat­ely 60,000 eligible Indigenous people. Clinics like Anishnawbe Health and Auduzhe Mino Nesewinong are delivering vaccines in a culturally safe and effective manner, and we’re working with hospitals like St. Mike’s to offer vaccine appointmen­ts online. Sunnybrook even partnered with Auduzhe on an Indigenous vaccine day. We have to protect everyone we can. That’s what we were able to do up north. I loved meeting people and hearing their stories. I loved being there as a First Nations daughter so people could feel seen, heard and hopefully at peace. My participat­ion in the Ornge project was just two weeks, but it was the most incredible experience of my life.

We were only allowed to take what we could use in a day, and we never wasted a dose

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