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DLSPH Provides Culturally Safe Vaccination for Indigenous People

May 5/2021

Indigenous health experts at the University of Toronto are running a COVID vaccination clinic for Toronto’s Indigenous community – an illustration of the power of public health measures wrapped in culturally appropriate care.

The clinic began in early April on campus and runs once a week throughout May. It will continue until the community is vaccinated. Rather than the anonymity of a mass vaccination effort, the focus is on a personalized experience without time restraints in keeping with traditional values, says co-founder Prof. Suzanne Stewart, director of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s Waakebiness-Bryce Institute of Indigenous Health (WBIIH).

“We have an Elder outside greeting people as they come in, and youth smudging people in the clinic,” says Stewart. “Because of the history and current context of harm by the biomedical system on Indigenous people, we emphasized making this a culturally safe and culturally based clinic. We provide a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for the multiple identities that comprise the Indigenous experience: status, no status, Métis, Two-Spirit, Black Indigenous, Inuit. All our people are welcomed and treated in a respectful way.”

The clinic came together quickly after staff from a WBIIH community partner Na-Me-Res (which was already running Auduzhe, a small vaccination clinic), asked Stewart if they could partner to expand capacity. Stewart quickly obtained assistance from leaders of DLSPH and the Faculty of Medicine to find a larger space. UHN and Auduzhe provided staff to give the shots.

The pop-up space can accommodate 1,500 a day, but received an initial 400+ Pfizer doses.  When the call went out, the slots were filled in 30 hours, with only a few no-shows.

Personal relationships were the key to this success, says Stewart.

“A lot of Indigenous people in the community that I’m aware of would not have come forward to receive their vaccine if it had not been administered by Indigenous people in an Indigenous environment,” she says. “A lot of Indigenous people in Toronto rely on the relationships they have with Indigenous health professionals. If they know Dr. Janet Smylie, they will come. Or Dr. Suzanne Shush, or me. They know us as people who want things to happen for the community, not for University reasons or research reasons. This clinic is a great example of community based initiatives.”

Stewart has also noticed a positive change at U of T in terms of support for critical Indigenous health efforts.

“U of T really stepped up to this opportunity to support the Indigenous community,” she says. “Five or 10 years ago I would have gotten a straight no. This is a great example of a shift that’s happening in the University as well as in the hospital system to support Indigenous health in a way that’s ethical and appropriate and addressing some aspects of reconciliation.

“It’s wonderful the way DLSPH and FOM supported this. I’m moved by the amount of kindness and generosity they’ve provided, and a little overwhelmed by it. It’s new for the University to be this way, and I am very grateful to be part of it.”