As communities work to stop the spread of COVID-19, Indigenous health experts say there is a “social sickness” that also must be addressed.
A new short animated video is aiming to educate the public on the stigmatization that’s faced by Indigenous communities in the wake of the pandemic.
The video, co-produced by the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health (NCCIH) and BC Northern Health, is titled “Healing in Pandemic Times: Indigenous Peoples, Stigma and COVID-19.”
Dr. Margo Greenwood, academic leader of NCCIH, is the executive producer of the video, which she says she hopes will start important conversations around stigma and discrimination.
“When we begin to talk about these things I think we begin to learn,” she says. “I think education is a critical way to address stigma.”
The four-and-a-half-minute video is narrated by Dr. Evan Adams of Tla’amin First Nation and features a Nlaka’pamux healing song.
In the video, Adams — who is well known for playing Thomas in the famous 1998 film Smoke Signals — speaks over a cartoon animation by Joanne Gervais. The cartoon shows people in various scenarios, such as a group of people whispering and pointing at an Indigenous woman.
“Pandemics can promote harmful stigmatization,” Adams says during the video. “COVID-19 is a physical virus. Stigma is a social sickness.”
Greenwood says the initial idea for the video was prompted by Mary Ellen Turpond-Lafond‘s recent In Plain Sight report that outlined systemic racism in B.C.’s healthcare system.
Greenwood says there are many harmful and untrue stereotypes that are anchored in colonial views and reinforced through generations.
“Our work today is to challenge those old stereotypes, to know when they’re influencing our thinking and our behaviors,” she says.
“Once we are aware and we know we are being influenced by them we need to challenge them. I’m really hopeful that this video will promote that kind of reflection and discussion and it will illuminate the urgent need for change.”
On Jan. 14, CBC News released a story wherein Indigenous people in Powell River, Port Hardy and Duncan spoke of being denied service in various establishments after COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities.
The same day, B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry spoke out against this discriminatory behavior in her regular COVID-19 update, saying this type of racism “must stop.”
“This type of racism cannot be tolerated and I stand against this with my colleagues to say this must stop on Vancouver Island and elsewhere,” she said.
“Racism has no place in our society, in our communities here in British Columbia and we must all take the time to speak out and speak up.”
Henry said it has become clear that First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples in British Columbia did not come into the pandemic on equal footing to the rest of the province.
“COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but systems do,” she said. “It has illuminated for us many long-standing inequities in different parts of our society.”
Meanwhile, other Indigenous communities are also speaking out against stigma during the pandemic.
Snuneymuxw First Nation released an open letter stating people in that community and the nearby Cowichan Tribes have also experienced racism after a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Similar commentary was also seen in a number of other communities around British Columbia,” the Jan. 15 letter states.
“Anti-Indigenous racism has no place in B.C.’s pandemic response or community commentary.”
The letter is co-signed by Snuneymuxw Chief Mike Wyse and six other community leaders, including Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly and Telaxten Paul Sam of the First Nations Health Council.
It points out that some of the commentary has been around Indigenous communities receiving urgent access to the vaccine — saying that Indigenous peoples require this access because of proven poorer health outcomes and chronic health conditions.
“Together we need to continue to stand up for respectful treatment of Indigenous Peoples and nations,” the letter continues.
“The burden of addressing racism needs to come off the shoulders of Indigenous peoples.”
Greenwood says she is hopeful that the new video will begin to unpack definitions such as stigma and stereotypes that will help people in organizations to question their own thinking around differences with respect to racial inequalities.
“Sometimes we’re just not aware of our own biases, of those unfavourable beliefs or opinions that we hold and sometimes we don’t even know where they came from,” Greenwood says.
“I’m hopeful that the video adds critical information that will promote important conversation on how best to address and stop stigma and discrimination.”