Remote Indigenous communities working with feds on mandatory COVID-19 vaccine exemptions

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The federal government is working on an exemption to its newly released mandatory vaccine policy for people from remote Indigenous communities, many of which are only accessible by plane.

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The new policy asks travelers over the age of 12 to provide proof that they have received two doses of a Health Canada-approved vaccine at least 14 days before boarding a plane or train.

There are 182 communities that have been rated as “remote” by Transport Canada or by the provinces and territories.

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The vast majority are so isolated that the only way to get in and out is by plane, and essential services like medical visits are not available by any other means of transport.

People in Nescantaga First Nation – about 450 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ont. — One can get into or out of the community by plane only in summer, and sometimes snowy roads in winter.

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“We depend on air service for everything. It’s just like highways to us,” said Gary Quiss, a councilor with First Nation.

He said people move in and out of the community for food, medical appointments and even commuting to their jobs, and they have no other choice.

The community of 400 people, which has been under a boil-water advisory since 1995, recently lifted travel restrictions and now relies heavily on tests to prevent COVID-19.

Nescantaga has a high vaccination rate, about 98 percent for adults, but the policy will have serious implications for those who are still unvaccinated unless a waiver is granted.

“I think there should be some room for people who don’t get vaccinated,” he said. “If a person can’t get medical help where will it fall?”

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Quisess said the government hasn’t reached out to his band office directly about the new vaccine mandate.

Government officials are meeting with Indigenous organizations and representatives of provincial and territorial governments to discuss possible waivers or providing housing for remote Indigenous communities, according to a statement from the office of Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabara.

Alghbra’s office did not immediately respond to questions about which groups have been consulted, but said housing could include a negative molecular COVID-19 test rather than proof of full vaccination.

Quisess said it would be a relief for Neskantaga, where tests are already being conducted continuously.

“Right now, I think there are some concerns with this new policy,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s a good way to stop the virus from spreading.”

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However, different communities are handling the virus differently, he said, and housing may not suit all of them.

Alan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northern Alberta, said he supports vaccine passports for travel in and out of his remote community, as long as there is a proper plan in place to help people who have medical reasons. Vaccine cannot be found from

The chief said Athabasca Chipewyan is home to about 1,200 people, and of those who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, more than 80 percent have received them.

As far as people in his community who simply don’t want to take their shot, “they have to think twice about it,” Adam said.

Indigenous Services Canada does not provide vaccine rates for First Nations. As of 5 October, 786,893 doses have been given to First Nations, of which 348,757 were second doses.

Missinpipe Airways, a private air carrier providing flights to remote communities in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nunavut, has also not been advised by the government about the changes, but said medical-evacuation flights will not be affected.

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The new vaccine mandate for travelers is due to begin at the end of the month.

The government said there would be a one-month grace period in which unvaccinated passengers could test a negative instead.

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