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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Viral misinformation

BY Patrick Quinn Aug 14, 2020

Friendship centres coast to coast remained busy during the pandemic crisis, providing essential services to communities even when some couldn’t physically open their doors. They have also been more active than ever online, including a recent digital campaign that uses humour to confront common Covid-19 myths and misinformation.

The National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) partnered with Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon to create a series of videos for the campaign, called “Take Care in Covid”. Each 30-second clip begins with McMahon talking excitedly about popular misconceptions such as mosquitoes or the 5G network spreading the virus until a buzzer announces “FALSE” and the truth is revealed. 

“Indigenous people are often able to talk about very serious topics using humour,” said NAFC executive director Jocelyn Formsma. “The idea behind it was providing Covid information and busting myths in a way that’s accessible and enjoyable. We thought we could appeal to a greater audience – hopefully people will want to watch them because they’re funny.”

One video featuring a catchy chant of “Stay away from me, Covid-19”, which reminds viewers to take safety precautions at sweat lodges and other ceremonies, has been shared over 80 times. McMahon has been making Indigenous people laugh for decades and is a long-time advocate of the friendship centre movement. 

“I am so proud to be a part of this campaign and to use my comedy to help deliver useful information about Covid-19 to help keep people safe and healthy as this pandemic continues to evolve,” said McMahon in a statement. “It’s unbelievable to see what’s floating around on the internet and even being shared by friends or even family members. That’s why there is such a need to get trusted information out there.” 

While most people might find the myths featured in the videos ridiculous, they all come from common falsehoods and conspiracy theories circulating on social media. Formsma hopes that breaking down the facts into simple and memorable takeaways will help reach people who have unanswered questions about the virus or distrust public safety advice. 

Particularly serious myths – such as the virus as a hoax or government conspiracy, or that getting tested can cause people to be infected – risk contributing to the pandemic. Taking basic precautions can prevent potential outbreaks of the virus, which she interestingly compares to the trickster in traditional Indigenous tales.

“This trickster character can either teach a lesson or give guidance on behaviour in certain circumstances,” Formsma told the Nation. “It’s a different way to view Covid-19 – if we give it a character it helps us navigate our relationship with it. It really is trying to get itself out into the world and it’s up to us to beat the tricks and stop it, so it doesn’t go further and cause chaos and havoc to more people.”

To further that conversation about helping people stay safe, McMahon moderated a Facebook Live panel July 22 with Formsma and Dr. Janet Smylie, director of the Indigenous healthcare centre Well Living House. Viewers could ask questions and receive expert medical advice from Dr. Smylie, who used a different analogy to describe the virus.

“She talks about it as a tricky relative,” said Formsma. “Sometimes we have this tricky relative who behaves themselves in smaller groups or one-on-one but once we get into large gatherings, they don’t know how to behave. In that situation medically, we have outbreaks and people can get sick.” 

As this communications campaign winds down, the NAFC is shifting its focus to how it can best support urban Indigenous people in the post-pandemic reality. Friendship centres are community hubs that foster cultural connection while providing transition services, outreach programs and other culturally relevant wellness services for women, youth and vulnerable populations. 

During the pandemic, many transitioned to virtual programming, but others extended their hours to fill the void from the closure of other urban services, sometimes renting porta-potties and handwashing stations. Centres in British Columbia, for instance, received double the usual demand for domestic violence support. 

Formsma was encouraged to see the federal government allocate $15 million in April and a further $75 million in May to support urban Indigenous organizations like the NAFC. A first round of funding has already been distributed to local centres and a second will follow shortly. 

On July 30, Bell Canada launched its Let’s Talk Diversity Fund with $250,000 donations to both the NAFC and the Black Youth Helpline. This new partnership will help support culturally specific mental health supports in urban Indigenous communities.

“The service needs have not declined, and centres are expecting there might be a spike in the early fall,” said Formsma. “As we adjust to a new reality, we think that friendship centres will be central to that. How do we ensure those resources are there, not just for now but in the longer term?”

Formsma said that friendship centres will help people get back to work while providing valuable wraparound supports for people in education, childcare service, before- and after-school programming, and respite care for children and the elderly. As society gradually reopens, the NAFC wants to be part of the conversation about what happens next. 

“There’s a lot we know friendship centres will be doing and we hope we’re engaged as it moves forward,” said Formsma. “We need to be there as full partners to give those perspectives about what we’re seeing, the impacts on urban Indigenous communities. We think we have essential information and perspective to add to those conversations.”  

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.