On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford apologized for accusing Indigenous MPP Sol Mamakwa of “jumping the line” to get the vaccine. Ford said he was sorry for calling out the NDP member of provincial parliament for Kiiwetinoong, who travelled to Muskrat Dam and Sandy Lake First Nations in his riding earlier this month to publicly receive his COVID shot to create more support in the community around vaccination. Ford attributed his response, which took place during a heated Question Period exchange, to the fact that they are from different parties, saying that they both want the same thing (that everyone gets the vaccine), and adding, “I got a little personal there.”
Which misses the point completely.
Not only did Ford take part in racial gaslighting by shaming Mamakwa — an Indigenous man — for receiving medical care and insinuating that he didn’t “belong” in the community where he did so, he missed the opportunity to use his platform to engage in the ongoing conversation around vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities, a crucial discussion as the province finally amps up rollout after weeks of stalled shipments. As Mamakwa said on Twitter on Sunday, Ford “had a chance to undo the damage he did to the vaccine rollout for Indigenous people. He had a chance to use his platform and say, all Indigenous adults qualify, no matter where you live. And getting your shot is a good thing, not a bad thing. But he didn't do that.” Instead, added Mamakwa, Ford was expressing "colonial sentiments,” (i.e. racism), by ignoring the issue.
Not only did Doug Ford take part in racial gaslighting, he missed the opportunity to use his platform to engage in the ongoing conversation around vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities.
Currently, many Indigenous people in Canada are priority groups, eligible to receive the vaccine because they are considered vulnerable populations. The rate of reported cases of COVID-19 in First Nations people living on reserves is 183% higher than the rest of Canada, according to data from Indigenous Services Canada. In Manitoba, for example, despite making up just over 10% of the province’s population, Indigenous people account for over 71% of active cases. But vaccine rollout has been slow. Both in part due to supply and difficulty getting vaccines to remote communities, but also because people are hesitant to receive it. There’s little trust (and rightly so) in federal and provincial institutions that for years have mistreated and abused Indigenous people — abuse that continues to this day, whether it’s the lack of safe housing and drinkable water, or neglect in Canada’s hospitals, where people like Joyce Echaquan are taunted and left to die.
“Every Indigenous person in Canada has either experienced racism when accessing health services themselves or known someone close to them who has," says Jaris Swidrovich, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of a February paper on vaccine hesitancy in Indigenous communities, who is Saulteaux. "So when a very big, worldwide public vaccination campaign is rolling through, of course there's many questions always being asked." (It’s important to emphasize that vaccine hesitancy is incredibly nuanced and not the same as being an anti-vaxxer. Also, it’s not limited to Indigenous communities).
Historically, this medical mistreatment is probably most well-documented in residential schools, where Indigenous children were used for medical experimentations — like the testing of tuberculosis vaccines on Cree and Nakoda Oyadebi infants in Saskatchewan in the first half of the 20th century — often without people’s knowledge or consent. Which is a history that’s not easily, and shouldn’t be, forgotten.
“A lot of our community members are aware of what’s happened to our communities,” Delores Kakegamic, the Chief of Sandy Lake First Nation tells Refinery29 Canada. “They’re scared we’re going to be guinea pigs, people who [the medical community] tests their stuff on.”
That’s why she asked Mamakwa to Sandy Lake. “To get rid of the stigma and negativity, we invited a couple of the higher-ups in the world such as Sol to show that it’s okay,” Kakegamic says. She adds that since Mamakwa — a high school friend of hers — and other prominent Indigenous leaders received their vaccines in Sandy Lake First Nation, 85% of residents showed up for the first dose.
But this is one community in a country of more than 630. And despite the government’s best efforts to convince Canadians that racism is in our past, the fact remains that this country continues to treat Indigenous peoples horrendously. Meaning there’s more than a long way to go when it comes to building general confidence around the vaccine, healthcare, and the treatment of Indigenous people in general.
When reached for comment, the office of the premier referred Refinery29 to March 11 comments made by Health Minister Christine Elliott. When asked if Ford’s comment was appropriate, Elliott said the premier was “expressing some frustration." Elliott then went on to acknowledge Mamakwa’s positive intentions before saying, “We still are asking all people, everywhere in Ontario, to please wait until your turn comes in the priority we outlined.”
But that’s not really good enough. Since the interaction, Mamakwa has called for Ford to publicly apologize to Indigenous communities and people. As advocates and members from these communities have outlined, it’s imperative that politicians, Canadians, and those in healthcare take the time to understand the history of institutional racism, and the way it affects communities as a way to even start to rebuild trust between Indigenous communities and the government. Which is something Ford could have done by addressing Mamakwa's public inoculation beyond a flippant comment. In a March 12 op-ed for the Toronto Star, Mamakwa said Ford needs to rebuild trust by committing to stop the spread of misinformation and mistrust around vaccines in remote communities, as well as finally address the “pressing needs” for housing, clean water, justice reform, public health resources, and youth mental health. To name a few.
“Indigenous peoples and Indigenous leaders need to be part of all tables related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination efforts,” adds Swidrovich. This means making sure information is accessible and presented in the best way for these communities to receive it, whether that’s via videos, in-person visits, or town halls.
“[The goal] is for people of all ages to be able to make an informed decision about receiving their vaccine versus a top down urgency saying you should get it,” says Swidrovich. “We need to make sure that people are involved in all phases of this process and receive information that is culturally relevant and acceptable to be able to make their own informed decisions.”
Refinery29 has reached out to MPP Sol Mamakwa and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford. This piece will be updated with their comments.