OTTAWA — As many Indigenous people who live in urban areas are left unsure how they will be vaccinated against COVID-19, an organization that serves them is calling on Ottawa to allocate vaccine shots for them.
The federal government insists provincial governments are responsible for those vaccinations, but the head of the National Association of Friendship Centres says Ottawa should have a cohesive COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan for Indigenous people, including in urban areas.
Executive director Jocelyn Formsma said the federal government is co-ordinating with First Nations and Inuit governments to immunize those on reserves, but there is no national vaccination plan for Indigenous people living outside those communities.
"It's not surprising that the process is confusing as there hasn't been a whole lot of clarity," she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Travelling back to their First Nations communities to seek the shots there is not an option for most, as the Assembly of First Nations says the quantities of COVID-19 vaccines delivered to most First Nations are enough only for those living there permanently.
"Most on-reserve First Nations haven’t had sufficient vaccine supply to extend distribution to their off-reserve members," the AFN said in a statement Wednesday.
Statistics Canada says 970,000 Indigenous people live in urban areas across the country and a quarter of them live in poverty.
Formsma said many First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments don't have any information about what the plans are for urban Indigenous people.
The AFN said First Nations are in discussions with provincial and territorial governments on how to prioritize Indigenous people in their vaccination campaigns but there is not enough information on the future of these efforts in urban areas.
"Limited data has been collected regarding the amount of off-reserve members who have received the vaccine," the AFN said.
Formsma said Ottawa should consider giving vaccine doses to clinics serving Indigenous people in urban areas instead of waiting for the provinces to do it.
She said more than 50 clinics run by her organization's members, community hubs for Indigenous people in cities and towns across the country, are able and willing to administer the shots.
The AFN also said it has been pressing for more support for immunization clinics in urban areas as they are culturally safe for Indigenous people, who continue to suffer systemic racism when they seek health services.
But Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said allocating COVID-19 vaccine doses for Indigenous people in urban areas through the provinces is faster and more effective.
"Is it perfect? No," Miller said in a news conference in Ottawa Wednesday.
He said his department's capacity to deliver vaccines is limited to First Nations communities on reserves.
"Indigenous Peoples in urban settings are just as vulnerable as those that are on reserve," he said.
He said he will work with provinces and territories to guarantee that they prioritize Indigenous people in their immunization efforts.
Miller said delivering COVID-19 vaccines has started in more than 440 Indigenous communities and 103,000 doses have been administered.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization gave new guidance last week that recommended prioritizing vaccinations for racialized adults in groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including Indigenous people, ahead of some older non-racialized people.
The committee recommended that all adults in Indigenous communities should receive COVID-19 shots in the second stage of the immunization campaign this spring.
Miller said the friendship centres are important partners in the vaccine deployment.
"They know their people. They're culturally sensitive to the realities of urban Indigenous peoples," he said.
"The friendship-centres network is great, but it doesn't have full penetration in all urban centres and there are optimal institutions that can do that better."
Formsma said only a few vaccine clinics are open for urban Indigenous people across the country and they get their doses from local and provincial health authorities.
The lack of these clinics leaves Indigenous people in urban areas uncertain.
"I've had many people reach out to me personally on Facebook Messenger or on Twitter or even text me to ask me what is happening for urban Indigenous," she said. "We don't have any information except for what's already publicly available and we don't have any decision-making power at all."
Formsma said fewer than 10 of her members are having serious talks with provincial health authorities to set up new vaccine clinics.
"They can set up the clinics, that's no problem. It's getting the province to agree to give certain amounts of the vaccine," she said.
She said if the government doesn't have its own plan to vaccinate this part of the population, it should be clear about that.
"We've been trying to say is if you don't have anything, at least tell people that," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press