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Vaccinations in Eeyou Istchee begin as communities return to Phase 3

BY Ben Powless Jan 15, 2021

As Covid cases continue to climb out of control across Canada, the first vaccines available to Crees were administered in Mistissini January 5.
After Canada approved the Moderna vaccine December 23, Quebec informed the Cree Health Board (CHB) that the first doses would be sent to Eeyou Istchee January 5, with a goal of delivering more by January 11.
Cree health authorities outlined a best-case scenario that would see all eligible individuals across Eeyou Istchee receive both necessary doses of the vaccine within eight weeks, in contrast to the estimated eight-month timeline for the rest of North America.
“With the Moderna vaccine’s approval and distribution, we are one step closer to better protecting our most vulnerable community members during this pandemic,” the CHB stated on its website. “Vaccination is our best protection against spreading Covid-19 and getting very sick from an infection.”
The CHB said it was working with Cree leadership and public health partners to prepare the logistics, storage, distribution sites and information about the vaccine’s release, and said that further information would be provided via radio and social media as to when and where people could get their injections.
The Moderna vaccine is delivered in two steps, with at least a month between doses. All adults over 18 are eligible to receive it. They may be able to get the first dose in one community and the second in another. In the case of postsecondary students, it should be possible to receive the second vaccine outside of Eeyou Istchee. The vaccine is not mandatory, but is encouraged by Cree health authorities, and is considered safe and effective.
In the case that not enough vaccines are available in the near term for all communities, Cree health authorities said that vaccine distribution will be prioritized both between communities and within communities, with inland communities closer to Chibougamau-Chapais considered most at risk. Age, vulnerability, profession and other logistical concerns will determine the order of who receives the vaccine in each community.
Further information about the vaccine is online at www.creehealth.org/covid-vaccine-faq.
The first set of 1,200 doses were delivered to Mistissini as part of a test run, with the first vaccines administered to Elders, frontline workers and, ceremonially, to new CHB chair Bertie Wapachee.
The vaccinations began as the Cree Nation of Nemaska mourned Elder Matthew Wapachee, who passed away just before New Year’s Day to complications due to a Covid-19 infection. The Cree Nation has now lost five Elders to the virus since the pandemic began, all contracted outside of Eeyou Istchee.
Meanwhile, the Atikamekw community of Obedjiwan, 143 km south of Chibougamau, reported more than 100 active cases in recent days. The CHB said that Region 2 (Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean) had seen Covid-19 cases briefly decline, but they then began climbing again.
Region 8 (Abitibi-Témiscamingue) has also seen a significant jump in cases. Chibougamau had cases of community transmission in December, which means that non-essential Cree visitors to Chibougamau must now isolate for 14 days when they return home.
In Kuujjuaraapik, two cases of Covid were confirmed in people who had travelled south, according to the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services. After contact tracing, Nunavik health authorities said that no community action for Whapmagoostui members would be necessary.
After the rise in cases across Region 8, Cree health officials decided to move all Cree communities back to Phase 3 of confinement. That means that outdoor gatherings may have a maximum of 75 people or 10 households, while indoor gatherings may have a maximum of 25 people or three households.
The only areas of travel within Quebec that were considered safe to visit were Region 8, Region 10 (Nord-du-Québec), Region 17 (Nunavik), and Region 18 (Eeyou Istchee). Residents of Mistissini, Ouje-Bougoumou, Nemaska and Waswanipi may still visit Chibougamau – but only for essential purposes.
In Ontario, the only areas considered safe to visit were Sudbury, Porcupine and the Timiskaming regions of northern Ontario, which includes the municipalities of Timmins, Moosonee and North Bay.
With Quebec reporting over 2,500 new cases a day in early January with 50 or more deaths per day, Premier François Legault announced severe new lockdown measures in red zones that including closing schools and non-essential businesses and implementing an unprecedented 8pm-to-5am curfew.
Nationwide, Canada was reported over 8,000 cases a day in recent weeks and over 200 deaths per day. That brought nationwide totals to over 600,000 cases and 16,000 total deaths.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.