First Nations Leaders Fight Vaccine Hesitancy With Social Media Savvy

A typical post from Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias pairs personality with uncomfortable truth.

“Good morning,” he wrote on Twitter Monday, “today is 9,497 days from February 1, 1995 … That’s 26 friggen years of Neskantaga [First Nation] Boil Water Advisory.”

And on Thursday: “Day 9500 of Neskantaga First Nation Boil Water Advisory. How’s your water situation? Have a good day eh.”

For years, Moonias has used Twitter to talk about the drinking water advisory in Neskantaga, which is Canada’s longest-standing at 26 years. Now, he’s spreading the word about something else: COVID-19 vaccines.

He was the first person to get vaccinated in Neskantaga Monday. He streamed the whole thing on Facebook Live, in a video that’s now been viewed more than 3,000 times. 

He celebrated after getting it: “No tears, yay!” 

Moonias has posted updates about how he feels after getting vaccinated every day since he got the shot. He’s also stressed that vaccinating as many people as possible will protect those who can’t get the shot, like his seven-year-old grandson, Hunter, who’s too young. 

“Let’s protect our loved ones that can’t take the vaccine,” he wrote in one tweet. “Kick covid’s butt!!! Let’s end the pandemic together!!!”

The federal government says it’s relying on Indigenous leaders to encourage vaccination, because politicians’ words don’t go far with these communities.

“There’s a very thin level of trust between Indigenous communities and the federal government and the provincial governments and territories,” Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said at a press conference Thursday. 

“My voice is less important than some of the Indigenous health professionals out there leading the way … And it isn’t just people with medical degrees.”

He said there are 1,885 active COVID-19 cases on reserves and in northern and Inuit regions and 174 people in these communities have died. 

Neskantaga had one close call — when a contractor working in the community tested positive for COVID-19 — but no residents have caught the virus, Moonias told HuffPost Canada over FaceTime. 

About 60 per cent of residents got their first vaccinations this week, the chief said. He wants to see that number up to 70 or 80 per cent.

“There are some people that are hesitant to take it and there are people that will not take it at all. And there are people that are still undecided,” he said. 

He disagreed with the suggestion that this is because of lies and conspiracy theories that proliferate online.

“Even before the internet, there were people that did not take the flu vaccine … It’s just something that they believe.”

‘We want to protect ourselves’

MPP Sol Mamakwa, whose northwestern riding of Kiiwetinoong includes Neskantaga, says there’s a direct line from colonization to vaccine hesitancy.

“I receive a lot of direct messages. They’re scared, even going as far as [saying] there’s a chip in there,” the MPP told HuffPost. “It’s because of the historical traumas. An example would be residential schools and generations of poor treatment from the health system.

“… Often, we have to travel out to access health care services. And then of course, there’s an issue of language and cultural barriers.”

He said in some communities in Kiiwetinoong, which is 68 per cent Indigenous, only 30 per cent of people have signed up for the vaccine.

Mamakwa got his first shot Monday, after being asked to do so by the chief of Muskrat Dam First Nation and officials with Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, who were worried about low uptake. 

And he’s been spending about an hour every day answering questions about the vaccine that he gets on Instagram and in calls and text messages.

MPP Sol Mamakwa gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at Muskrat Dam First Nation in his riding of Kiiwetinoong on Feb. 1, 2021.

“I wanted to show people in the North, people in general, that the vaccine is safe,” he said. 

“I think that the bigger picture is also, in the long run, we want to protect ourselves. We want to protect our languages. We want to protect our traditions for future generations.”

The NDP sent out a photo of Mamakwa, in his Tragically Hip T-shirt, getting the needle. And he’s been posting videos of himself talking about the vaccine in Oji-Cree to TikTok, a platform he often uses for nature videos and viral video re-creations. (Yes, he’s done the one with the cranberry juice and the skateboard).

Mamakwa said he was hesitant at first, worried it would look like he was jumping the line. 

But one of the doctors doing vaccinations thanked him for coming, and Mamakwa’s since been invited to another community, Wapekeka, to be present for their vaccination days.

At Muskrat Dam, he was asked to speak at a ceremony where elders blessed the vaccines before they were used.

“That was very moving,” he said. “And to have the leadership, the community, elders, and also the vaccination teams watching this, that’s when I knew that I had made the right decision.”