Dr. John Byrne, Wylie Scholar 2018, recently worked with an “Operation Remote Immunity” medical team to provide COVID vaccinations to Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario.  Since many of these First Nation, Inuit, and Métis communities are very remote, they do not have good access to healthcare and are therefore at very high risk for COVID-19.

Dr. Byrne’s account of his experience:

Canada has many descendants of the first inhabitants of North America. This includes the First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Amongst these are many disadvantaged communities due to historical oppression from European colonizers. In modern day Canada, many of these communities are isolated and thus have limited access to healthcare and other resources. This makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Many of these communities are only reachable by boat or plane.

The government prioritized these communities for COVID vaccinations due to their vulnerability. In Ontario, Operation Remote Immunity is run by the Ontario Air Ambulance Service (known as Ornge) with the help of local health authorities. Over a 6-8 week period, the goal was to reach as many people as possible in these communities in Northern Ontario. When the call for volunteers went out, my privileged position as a welcomed Irish immigrant to Canada made me jump at the opportunity. Over a 7-day period, I was a member of a team of paramedics, physicians, and nurses that joined healthcare workers from the local Weeneebayko Area Health Authority. We traveled by plane daily and covered two communities on Hudson Bay in Northern Ontario, Kashachewan, and Attawapiskat. In winter, these communities can be accessed by a treacherous ice-road (not for the faint of heart), but the remainder of the year they are only accessible by plane and boat. These communities are some of the larger First Nations communities with populations of approximately 2000 people each. Sadly, they have extremely limited access to healthcare and the other benefits of modern life the rest of us take for granted. Kashachewan is frequently flooded during the spring thaw, and both communities have frequent issues with water quality.

Due to the history of residential schools and injustice against these communities, quite a bit of groundwork had to be done to gain the communities’ trust and implement the vaccination program. There were significant operational challenges. Unable to stay on the reservations, we flew in daily, bringing everything we needed each day to set up a mobile vaccination clinic. The vaccines were carefully transported in custom cooler boxes. There were challenges of cold weather (temperatures of -26 C or -15 F) and aborted landings. With the help of a First Nations liaison and community elders, we managed to spread a positive message and our small team was able to vaccinate 1200 people in five days.

As a recent immigrant to Canada, I confess I knew very little about the history of the descendants of the first inhabitants of Canada. I was impressed at the resilience of these people living in challenging conditions. I was humbled by the nurses, GPs, and paramedics that work with these communities to provide healthcare with limited resources year-round. I am glad I had the opportunity to play a small part in this operation to vaccinate an at-risk community.

John Byrne’s trip to Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario