Red Eagle, a community member in East Toronto, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a dedicated immunization clinic for First Nations,  Inuit, and Métis adults at Michael Garron Hospital.
Red Eagle, a community member in East Toronto, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a dedicated immunization clinic for First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults at Michael Garron Hospital.

‘A light at the end of the tunnel’: How ETHP’s dedicated COVID-19 immunization clinic for First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults at MGH is creating a safe, culturally sensitive environment for vaccinations

The following story was written in partnership with East Toronto Health Partners (ETHP), a group of more than 50 community, primary care, home care, hospital and social services organizations in East Toronto, including Michael Garron Hospital (MGH), working together to create an integrated system of care across our communities. To learn more about ETHP’s work, click here.

When Kayla Huotari-Harris received her COVID-19 vaccine at East Toronto Health Partners’ (ETHP) dedicated immunization clinic for First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) on March 24, she was overcome with emotion.

“I have underlying health conditions and have been isolating — not leaving my home unless absolutely necessary — for such a long time,” she said. “This felt like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The experience was made even more meaningful for Kayla, who is 33 years old and identifies as Métis, because of the cultural elements present at the clinic. It was designed to give First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults a safe and comfortable environment where they may receive their COVID-19 vaccine.

These cultural elements include a sacred pipe and smudging ceremony, which was conducted at the clinic by Elder Little Brown Bear, director of Aboriginal education, programs and culture and The Aboriginal Healing Program at MGH, before it opened.

Elder Little Brown Bear conducted a sacred pipe and smudging ceremony at the clinic before it opened on March 24.
Elder Little Brown Bear conducts a sacred pipe and smudging ceremony at the clinic.

In addition, traditional medicines are available at the clinic for individuals who wish to smudge before or after their vaccination. The clinic also operates using a sit-and-stay model where patients are able to sit in one place for their registration, vaccination and observation period.

“This is an opportunity for First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in a safe space where they feel at ease and their voices are heard,” said Elder Little Brown Bear. “We’re grateful to be able to help our community members in this way, and encourage all First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults to consider getting vaccinated against COVID-19 so we can protect ourselves and our communities and return to our way of life.”

The Elder always reminds us that “people don’t care how much you know; they want to know how much you care.”

MGH’s dedicated team of staff and Aboriginal community members are available at the clinic to address any questions or concerns throughout the vaccination process.

The clinic runs every Wednesday until May 26. It’s open to First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults who have booked an appointment in advance. Operating hours may change depending on need from the community. 

Elder Little Brown Bear and Kayla Huotari-Harris.
Elder Little Brown Bear (left) and Kayla Huotari-Harris.

“I don’t typically enjoy going to hospitals because I’ve experienced racism there,” Kayla said. “But this experience was more than I could have expected. It was set up in a way where we would have privacy and the chance to smudge and speak with the Elder. It was a calming, supportive environment.”

Red Eagle, a 73-year-old community member who is part of the First Nations Wolf Clan, had a similarly positive experience at the clinic during his vaccine appointment on March 24.

“Smudging brings in the element of spiritualization. It takes any negativity away. And we’re able to speak to the Elder before and after receiving the vaccine,” he said. “That felt good. It was safe and encouraging. And I felt happy afterward, like something was lifting me up inside.”

Like Elder Little Brown Bear, both Kayla and Red Eagle encourage other community members to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I know the relationship between First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and the Canadian government has not always been good, but it’s so important that we do our part,” Kayla said. “I’d encourage others to educate themselves about the vaccine and look into the studies available so they can make the decision that is best for them. This will hopefully encourage as many people as possible get the vaccine so we can protect our communities.”

“The COVID-19 vaccine is very, very helpful. It saves lives,” added Red Eagle. “Our health care workers are doing their part to help people and it’s important we do our part by getting the vaccine.”

First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults (16 years of age and older) may book an appointment at ETHP’s dedicated clinic for First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults at MGH  until May 26. Appointments may be booked online or by phone at 437-537-5131.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults are also eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at ETHP’s mass COVID-19 immunization clinic at Thorncliffe Park Community Hub at East York Town Centre and other City-operated immunization clinics. Please visit vaccineto.ca to see a list of other immunization clinics in Toronto.

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