Low-Income Canadians Face ‘Abusive’ Lending Rates Even In Pandemic

A single mother working the front desks at both a hospital and a nursing home, Donna Borden watched her debts grow.  On top of Toronto’s cost of living, Borden was juggling bills left behind when her mother died, plus helping her son bu...

Google Translate’s Exclusion Of Indigenous Languages A ‘Squandered’ Opportunity

A petition requesting Google add one of Canada’s most common Indigenous languages to its Translate app is gaining traction. The petition had more than 1,600 signatures as of Tuesday.Montreal publisher Joseph John is behind the petition. He ...

B.C. Government Slammed For ‘Utterly Ignorant’ COVID-19 Self-Care Bingo Card

The B.C. government is getting heat for a “tone deaf” self-care bingo card that recommends people build a blanket fort, drink tea or dance to manage pandemic stress. 

The province tweeted out the game on Friday, encouraging people to complete a row, column or diagonal to make sure they’re taking care of their mental health.

Twitter users were quick to criticize the government for minimizing and trivializing the devastating impact of the nearly yearlong pandemic. COVID-19 has killed nearly 22,000 people across the country and infected 843,000. Millions of Canadians lost or gave up their jobs amid lockdowns, particularly women and low-paid workers. Kids have missed months of in-class learning.

People are upset because this graphic is ableist, dismissive,” said one person

“You turned a neverending crisis and prolonged suffering into a game! Fun!” said another.

Some users shared their personal struggles during the pandemic, including not being able to see friends or family in person. 

The province subsequently acknowledged feedback it had “missed the mark” but still appeared committed to the idea of the game and connecting people to free or low-cost supports.

A few people voiced their appreciation for the bingo card.

That didn’t stop some Twitter users from suggesting what the province could do to ease their anxiety and stress, from mandating paid sick days to expanding mental health services and addressing the opioid crisis

Others called for more to be done to address the housing affordability crisis and homelessness. Some pointed to more COVID-19 screening for essential workers. 

Fewer Sexual Assault Patients At Hospital During 1st Wave ‘Majorly Concerning’

An Ontario emergency department saw a “drastic drop” in sexual assault victims in the first months of the pandemic, more evidence of a concerning trend that the lockdown, social isolation and fear of COVID-19 has stopped some women from ge...

Sexual Assault Centre Slams Upcoming Event Named After Serial Killer

A “Jack the Ripper” detective geogame coming to Ontario cities this spring goes too far in glorifying an infamous serial killer who brutally murdered women, says one sexual assault centre.

“He killed women thought to be sex workers, showed an extreme hatred against women and committed the worst crimes,” Sara Casselman told HuffPost Canada.

She’s executive director of the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, which is concerned that naming the event after a real-life predator “glorifies and romanticizes” violence against women. 

The murder mystery game will take place in Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton and Kitchener in May and June. Teams play detective, using their smartphones to track down clues and virtual witnesses around each city. 

The goal is to solve the case before the murderer “strikes again,” said the event website. “Jack the Ripper” is splashed across promotional materials, featuring a creepy, grinning man wearing a top hat on a cobblestoned street, holding a bloody knife and handkerchief.

A short movie about Jack the Ripper plays at a Museum in Docklands' exhibition in London, on May 14, 2008. The serial killer terrorized the city in 1888, targeting, torturing and killing at least five women, and should not be romanticized, Ontario advocates say.

The serial killer operated in London in 1888, targeting, torturing and killing at least five vulnerable women — Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows and Mary Jane Kelly. Although he terrorized the city, he was never caught. 

“I think there’s power in a name, and I don’t think that name should be used in association with any games,” said Casselman. “It’s a no-brainer that we don’t glorify someone who was a mass murderer of women.”

She said it would be like naming a game after B.C.’s Pig Farmer Killer or Montreal’s Polytechnique mass murderer.

CluedUpp, the U.K. company offering the event, said the game is not based on the killings in London and contains no references to the 1888 events. 

The storyline is fictional and set in modern times, said CluedUpp’s Chris Boyce in an email. The victims are male and there’s no violence against women “whatsoever.”  

“We very much stand with the support centre when it comes to putting a stop to violence against women,” he said, adding the game tackles topics such as police corruption, abuse of power and social inequality.

CluedUpp chose a serial killer’s nickname as the event’s title to engage people and then will use its platform to tell “important stories that stand a chance of being effective and change people’s perspective when it comes to abuse towards women,” Boyce said.

“As a murder-mystery company, we constantly find ourselves writing about violent crime — and we completely understand our responsibilities when it comes to writing new storylines,” said Boyce. “In this regard, we always do our very best to write a narrative that is both thought-provoking and sends an important message to the consumer.” 

But Casselman said the game’s name and branding in and of itself sends the wrong message, especially as violence against women across the country is rising because of the pandemic.

“They’re absolutely missing the point to say the game doesn’t glorify violence against women, when they’re invoking the name of a mass murderer of women to sell their product,” she said.

The Waterloo Region support centre has seen a 55 per cent increase in requests for counselling in the last quarter of 2020, compared to the same period the year before. The pandemic has caused women to be more socially isolated and vulnerable to abuse.

Demand for a program for women who’ve experienced abuse in their relationship and are navigating family court has increased 158 per cent, Casselman said. Groups and workshops have seen 312 per cent more participation. 

The support centre is asking the Waterloo Region community to forgo the event and instead consider attending workshops and training to learn more about gender-based violence prevention. 

“What we’ve done locally is say to our community, is this the kind of community we want to be?” Casselman said. “A company will do what it wants, but will our community forgo it?”

Inside The Outbreak That Made Ontario Care Home ‘Ground Zero’ For U.K. Variant

January would bring good news, Jeremy Taggart had hoped. His 73-year-old mother Beryl would be vaccinated against COVID-19. No longer would he stand in the parking lot of her long-term care home and wave to her through a window for a few moments. Soon, after more than a year apart, he’d walk through Roberta Place’s glass doors and hold her close.  

Throughout the fall, Taggart heard politicians and public health officials say vaccines were headed into the arms of Ontario’s most vulnerable residents. He assumed that included Beryl, living with dementia in the Barrie, Ont. home.

But the email Taggart received from Roberta Place on Jan. 8 was not about the vaccine. Instead it signalled the worst of the pandemic was only beginning. 

“The spread had started. That’s when I really got scared,” Taggart told HuffPost Canada. 

Jeremy Taggart with his mother Beryl, who lives at Roberta Place and recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit had declared an outbreak at the for-profit home after a staff member, who was initially asymptomatic, tested positive during weekly screening. She’d been in close contact with someone who’d travelled internationally.

The virus ripped through Roberta Place like wildfire. Provincial labs later confirmed the outbreak was fuelled by the highly contagious U.K. variant, said Dr. Charles Gardner, the region’s medical officer of health. 

Scientists have determined the U.K. variant (named after the country where it was first detected) will likely lead to large increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths because it is about 56 per cent more transmissible than the original strain. Within 48 hours of declaring the outbreak, cases at Roberta’s Place had ballooned from one to 55. A few days later, three residents died of COVID-19, the next day three more, then two more.

As of Tuesday, all but two of the 129 residents were infected, as well as three essential visitors, 85 health-care providers and 42 of their family members. Forty-five people, mostly residents, have died.

Workers arrive at the Roberta Place Long Term Care in Barrie, Ont. on Jan. 18, 2021.

Taggart’s family learned that his mother tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently experiencing fatigue and has lost her appetite, but is stable, he said. 

While he’s relieved his mother appears to be doing alright, “you just kind of worry about people who are in worse situations than we are at the moment. A lot of people are battling for their lives.” 

Roberta Place is the first known long-term care home in Canada infiltrated by a new strain of COVID-19, one that could already be spreading fast through communities, Gardner warned. Simcoe Muskoka public health has identified two cases in the area not related to Roberta Place. 

Gardner called Barrie “ground zero” for the variant. 

“If we’re seeing these unanticipated sporadic cases happening, that’s cause for concern,” he said. “There’s potential for a lot of transmission to take place in the city of Barrie and beyond.”

Public health officials connected Simcoe Muskoka region to another case of the variant three-hundred kilometres away in Kingston, Ont. A person travelled to the Barrie area where they contracted the virus from someone with no connection Roberta Place. The person returned to Kingston, where they spread it to four additional people, who have all recovered, confirmed the city’s public health unit.

Roberta Place had one of the worst outbreaks in Ontario due to a confluence of factors, including vaccine rollout challenges, short staffing and a lack of rapid response from the province, experts and critics say.  

Firstly, residents and staff had yet to be vaccinated. 

In December, Simcoe Muskoka Region received the Pfizer vaccine, but the province directed public health officials there to administer it only at hospitals with access to freezers capable of chilling the vials at the suggested -70 C, said Dr. Colin Lee, associate medical officer of health. That meant many of the region’s most vulnerable seniors were required to wait until the less-fragile Moderna doses arrived.

I wish I could turn back the clock. If we had a vaccine a month before, I think this outbreak would be a lot less severe.Dr. Colin Lee, Simcoe Muskoka health unit

Lee said officials expected that batch at the beginning of January, before the outbreak at Roberta Place, which they’d send straight to long-term care homes. 

“And it was rerouted, as far as I understand, to areas in the province of highest need,” Lee said during a press update. Those places included homes in the Toronto-area and Windsor.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is overseeing the provincial vaccine roll out, confirmed his team “put the emphasis” on those areas because they were the most threatened. 

“If the vaccines moved around that would’ve been why,” Hillier told reporters Monday.  “And now we’ve completed that, we’re focused on the rest of Ontario.”  

That refocusing came too late for Roberta Place. 

It wasn’t until a week after public health officials declared the outbreak that they got permission from the province to use what they had left of the Pfizer vaccine, said Lee. 

A mobile vaccine unit administered Pfizer doses to those who were eligible, mostly staff. 

“I wish I could turn back the clock,” Lee told reporters last week. “If we had a vaccine a month before, I think this outbreak would be a lot less severe.”

An essential visitor arrives at the Roberta Place Long Term Care home in Barrie, Ont., on Jan. 18, 2021.

Taggart’s family was told by a doctor that Beryl likely received the vaccine, but by that point she was already infected with the virus. He said the province should’ve vaccinated all long-term care residents in December and is frustrated by delays. 

Taggart pointed to the province pausing vaccination efforts for Christmas. 

“That’s when they should have been getting their first shot … that would’ve really curbed the spread.” 

Long-term care advocate Vivian Stamatopoulos, a professor at Ontario Tech University, said the  Roberta Place outbreak demonstrates how the province “dropped the ball” administering vaccines.  

“If we had actually treated the vaccination rollout like the emergency it is, we’d have already vaccinated all of long-term care within the first month. It was possible to do that,” she said.

The province said, as of Monday, it has given eligible and willing long-term care residents their first dose in 10 regions, including Simcoe Muskoka.  

The home was also short staffed before the outbreak and as workers began falling ill and needing to quarantine, it became a crisis.  

The lack of workers caring for residents limited their ability to stop the outbreak, acknowledged David Jarlette, president of Jarlette Health Services, the company that owns Roberta Place. 

“The virus came into the home so quickly. We found ourselves not able to have the staffing resources to cohort in a quick and timely fashion,” he said during a press briefing last week. 

A provincial inspector conducted a tour of Roberta Place the first week of the outbreak on Jan. 12 to 13 and found Jarlette Health Services “had failed to ensure that the home was a safe and secure environment for residents,” according to the report. Residents with and without COVID-19 were sharing rooms and came into close contact with one another. 

Some residents with COVID-19 were out of their rooms, touching surfaces and refusing to stay in isolation, the inspector found. 

The union representing Roberta Place workers said staff followed all the right protocols leading up to the outbreak and despite being tired, exhausted and afraid, they continue to work long hours. Some are living away from their families in hotels to try to contain the spread of the variant. 

“I’ll be honest, our primary task right now is not in finding blame, it’s in dealing with this inferno. They’re holding back what is akin to a raging fire. They know that if they get it wrong, people’s lives are at stake,” said Ian DeWaard, provincial director of CLAC.

“They know that community spread is possible. Their attention is focused on caring for residents and keeping things contained.” 

However, more than 200 doctors and researchers, including Stamatopoulos, say short staffing is a systemic problem that the province needs to address. They signed a letter  this week demanding action, including removing profits from long-term care homes, hiring qualified staff and providing urgent training, ensuring staff are paid fairly and employed full-time, and calling in the military immediately to assist with outbreaks “where staffing has collapsed.”

At Roberta Place, extra help didn’t arrive for a week after the outbreak was declared, when the local hospital took control of the home and extra physicians and the Red Cross were called in. 

“I really feel strongly that the military should’ve stepped in right at the beginning and should consider doing that in the event of another outbreak in our area,” said Dr. Kelley Wright, one of the physicians who assisted at Roberta Place.

Wright called families to update them about their parents, sometimes with the worst news. 

“I had two patients, a husband and wife in the home, and they both passed and I had to tell a family member they were going to lose both their parents in a week, which was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my job,” she said. “We can’t have another tragedy like Roberta Place.”  

Premier Doug Ford told reporters last week that when he asked why the military wasn’t sent in, he was told, “we don’t need them.” 

Health Minister Christine Elliott added that the Red Cross and hospital support is enough to see Roberta Place through the outbreak. 

 Watch: Moderna shot key to nursing home vaccinations, says Hillier. Story continues below.

Stamatopoulos rejected this explanation and said the province is not listening to the advice of people working on the front-lines of the pandemic. 

“It is always a ridiculous reactionary response when the house is already on fire,” she said. 

Joanne Nixon’s father, Cyril, is among the fatalities. The 81-year-old, a double amputee with Alzhimer’s disease, was well cared for at Roberta Place, Nixon said. His death was sudden and  heartbreaking and her thoughts go out to the staff there. 

“As far as I am concerned, everyone who walks through the doors at any health-care facility, be it a nursing home or hospital, whether they are a psw, or a nurse, doctor, cook cleaner, office staff … they are all amazing people who put their own lives and those of all their loved ones at risk,” Nixon said. “I cannot thank them enough.”

She urged the public to take COVID-19 precautions seriously, especially after experiencing first-hand the devastation caused by the variant.  

“If people would realize this maybe they would wash their hands properly and wear their masks and we would be able to prevent anyone else from dying” Nixon said. 

Groups Opposing LGBTQ Rights, Abortion Received Federal Wage Subsidy

Organizations that oppose LGBTQ+ rights, spread false information about abortions and push pandemic conspiracy theories are among the recipeints of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. 

HuffPost Canada reviewed Canada Revenue Agency’s wage subsidy registry of businesses, non-profit organizations and associations that received taxpayer money to help them pay workers during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Third Day Worship Centre, Journey Canada, Real Women of Canada, close to 20 anti-abortion groups and the Epoch Times are among the growing number of controversial groups that qualified for wage subsidies, known as CEWS. 

Questions have also been raised about why profitable oil companies, foreign-owned airlines, white nationalist Paul Fromm’s Canadian Association for Free Expression, and a business run by a man accused of financing terrorism received emergency funding.

The registry doesn’t disclose the amount each group received but Ottawa has approved more than $59 billion in subsidies. 

People carry a large rainbow flag during the Vancouver Pride Parade, on Aug. 4, 2019.

CEWS recipient Third Day Worship Centre, an Evangelical church in Kingston, Ont., made headlines last fall when a leaked video showed pastor Francis Armstrong preaching against homosexuality and the Muslim community and cast doubts about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Armstrong promoted the conspiracy theory that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using the COVID-19 vaccination campaign to implant microchips into billions of people to track their movements. 

In a statement, Third Day Worship Centre said it “is a legally constituted Canadian corporation fully entitled under the requirements of CEWS to receive benefits to aid our employees. 

“Nowhere do the CEWS regulations reference, as prohibited grounds for receiving funds, media-contrived definitions of ‘controversial’ that just happen to suit reporters desperate to invent a story, perhaps to save their own jobs.” 

Under no circumstances should public funds be used to support organizations that openly promote discrimination, prejudice or hate against Canadians.Kristopher Wells, Canada Research Chair

MacEwan University’s Kristopher Wells described these groups qualifying for emergency relief as “extremely disheartening” and “quite shocking.” 

“I would call on the federal government to immediately revoke that funding and take necessary steps to ensure that any anti-LGBTQ organization is deemed to be ineligible,” said Wells, a Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual Gender and Minority Youth. 

“Under no circumstances should public funds be used to support organizations that openly promote discrimination, prejudice or hate against Canadians, regardless of their identity or background. That’s just an affront to Canadian values and the entire purpose of public service and support.” 

He said he’d much rather see emergency relief support minority groups disproportionately  impacted by the pandemic. 

Journey Canada, which has allegedly run  conversion therapy programs, also received CEWS.

Conversion therapy is a discredited, pseudoscientific practice intended to change the sexual orientation of people in the LGBTQ+ community, or repress non-hetrosexual attraction or sexual behaviour, according to the federal government’s proposed Bill C-6 that aims to ban it. 

Journey Canada offers a seminar to equip “pastors, ministry leaders, friends and caregivers to walk with those who are experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction” and “explore God’s design for sexuality,” says its website

Spokesperson Graeme Lauber denied Journey Canada provides conversion therapy and said it “has never attempted to change anyone’s seuxal orientation.” 

But in a recent video Lauber said that Journey Canada opposes Bill C-6 because its definition of conversion therapy is too broad and efforts to change someone’s sexual behaviour should still be allowed. 

“We’re really worried that (Bill C-6) is going to start to interfere with our ability to reach out to people to let them know there is a good plan,” he said in the video for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. 

Watch: Why the NDP supports a conversion therapy ban. Story continues below.

Anti-abortion group Real Women of Canada is another CEWS recipient, despite opposing same-sex marriage and transgender rights, and repeatedly making homophobic statements on its website, social media and to elected officials. 

At a 2012 justice committee meeting, Real Women’s Diane Watts spoke against a federal bill to protect people from discrimination because of their gender identity or expression, including for transgender people. She made outlandish transphobic claims, suggesting the legislation would lead to more rights for pedophiles. 

NDP MP Randall Garrison called her remarks, “frankly offensive” and “simply inaccurate.” 

Watts responded to HuffPost’s comment request to say Real Women of Canada was “working on a response through other channels of communication.” 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks to the podium for a news conference on Jan. 19, 2021 in Ottawa.

When the federal government launched CEWS in April 2020, it was less to help businesses stay afloat and more to avoid layoff that would have significant economic repercussions.

“We knew we had to move quickly to support workers right across the country and obviously that meant sending help immediately to families … so that people could keep food on the table and could continue to pay rent, regardless of the job or organization they worked for,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Tuesday.  

“Obviously that requires checking after the fact. And there is a lot of work ongoing with the Canada Revenue agencies and others to ensure that the companies that received these benefits actually needed them.” 

Currently, organizations that have experienced any drop in revenue qualify for CEWS.

More than 30,000 groups received the wage subsidy and it has ensured four million Canadians stay on payroll, said Katherine Cuplinskas, press secretary for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland. 

The CRA is reviewing recipients and said that anyone found to have made a fraudulent claim could face fines or jail time. 

The government categorically condemns white supremacy, far-right extremism, and racism in all its forms,” Cuplinskas said.

Abortion advocates want Trudeau’s government to change CEWS criteria as it did for the Canada Summer Jobs grants, a program that subsidizes wages for student workers to incentivize business and nonprofits, a few years ago. 

To receive summer job funding, organizations must declare they do not actively work to infringe upon any Canadian’s legal rights, disqualifying groups that attempt to restrict reproductive health services, like abortions, or discriminate against people based on their sex, religion, ethnicity or gender identity. 

In 2019, Employment and Social Development Canada reported it received nearly 40,000 applications for the program and ruled out 400 applicants, including 26 groups for their stance on abortion. 

“The federal government was trying to get the (CEWS) money out quickly because of the pandemic, but still, they should’ve put some basic safeguards around it and built in some accountability,” said Joyce Arthur, executive director of The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which has started a petition calling for anti-choice groups to be prohibited from receiving CEWS. 

“They need to move quickly now to restrict future funding to groups like this and also claw back funding that was given to them. We want them to change the criteria ... to ensure that recipients are going to respect charter rights in general and cannot discriminate against minorities and women.”

Along with Real Women of Canada, close to 20 anti-abortion groups received CEWS, including the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, which displays graphic aborted fetus imagery on buses, flyers and protest signs and stigmatizes women and transgender people who choose abortion. It did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 

The international newspaper the Epoch Times was also a CEWS recipient. 

The publication is tied to the Chinese spiritual community Falun Gong, which is opposed to the Chinese communist government. Recent investigations by NBC News and The New York Times revealed the Epoch Times’ huge social media presence and showed how it advanced conspiracy theories embraced by alt-right groups like QAnon.

The publication did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. 

A newspaper box for the Epoch Times in New York City on Nov. 27, 2013.

The Epoch Times has sent free, unsolicited copies of its paper to Canadians across the country as recently as this week. An edition delivered last April promoted the unfounded belief COVID-19 (which it has called the Chinese communist party (CCP) virus) was created in a Chinese lab. An editorial said the cure was to “say no to the CCP.” 

The Epoch Times has also made baseless fraud claims about the 2020 presidential election and has been a platform for anti-vaccination propaganda. 

The Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice is concerned about any publication, including the Epoch Times, that portrays COVID-19 as “a Chinese virus” and pushes misinformation that Chinese Canadians are the carriers of the disease, said president Amy Go. 

But the council also supports the federal government protecting workers through the wage subsidy. 

“We want to make sure that the program is administered and provided ultimately to workers in Canada,” Go said. “And in this case, it could be the Epoch Times, it could be anybody. It could be an American-owned company, as long as they have operations in Canada and ensure workers are kept on the job.” 

Sonny Wong of the grassroots movement #HealthNotHate, which works to combat systemic racism, recognized it’s difficult for the government to “police” every CEWS applicant.

However, “generally, with all the social incursions we’re seeing in the world, funding should go to the side of truth, social justice and goodness,” Wong said. 

Canadian Realtor Told To ‘Enjoy Prison’ As She’s Mistaken For Capitol Rioter

A Canadian real estate agent has received almost a thousand harassing calls, emails and messages from angry Americans mistaking her for a woman who stormed the U.S. Capitol and happens to share her name, occupation and even hair colour. Jenna Ryan...

Nunavut Mayor Says $2,000 Draw Is Working To Get Residents Vaccinated

Arviat, Nunavut Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr. received a shot of the Moderna vaccine at the community hall on Jan. 13, 2021.

The mayor of a small Nunavut community hit hard by the novel coronavirus breathed a sigh of relief when hundreds of doses of the Moderna vaccine were delivered Wednesday. 

The fly-in hamlet of Arviat, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has a population of 1,800 and reported 222 of the territory’s 266 cases this fall. Due to a lack of housing, many people live together and aren’t able to isolate properly. 

Now with enough doses to vaccinate most of its residents, Arviat will likely be among the first communities in Canada to achieve herd immunity.

“I feel very humbled with that opportunity,” Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr. told HuffPost Canada.

Arviat's Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr. with the freezer containing hundreds of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that were flown into the community on Jan. 13, 2021.

To reach that milestone, however, Savikataaq said the community must overcome all the false information on social media that’s undermining trust in the vaccine. 

“There was all kinds of misinformation circulating around,” Savikataaq told HuffPost. “It had nothing to do with distrust of the health-care system or the government. It was the actual vaccine itself and all the false information on social media which quite a few people have access to.” 

The hamlet is taking a novel approach to combat vaccine hesitancy. Anyone who gets the shot can have their name entered to win one of five $2,000 prizes. The winners will be announced next week on the local radio station and social media. 

“That game plan is working,” said Savikataaq, noting residents were excited about the draw as vaccinations began in the community hall Thursday morning.

The day before, he and nine respected elders got their shots to boost public confidence.

Arviat, Nunavut elders who received their first doses of the vaccine on Jan. 13, 2021.

“I feel a sense of relief,” Savikataaq said. “I could finally breathe a bit better now and in fact I was the very first one in this community to get the shot. The other elders were right behind me.” 

Vaccine clinics have also been set up in three other Nunavut communities and 400 residents have been vaccinated as of Monday. National vaccine guidelines recommend Indigeous communities receive the vaccine this winter because of the “disproportionate consequences” if residents are infected without access to health care. 

Indigenous leaders and officials across Canada are concerned about vaccine hesitancy, whether it stems from misinformation online, or a long history of colonialism. 

“It’s safe,” Nunavut’s Premier Joe Savikataaq Sr. (whose son is the mayor of Arviat) told reporters earlier this week, urging residents to partake. “Just because someone claims it is harmful does not make it true. It is not a cure for COVID-19, but it will help us fight the virus.”

Watch: Engagement crucial to overcome Indigenous vaccine concerns, minister says. Story continues below. 

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said at a news conference Wednesday that the greatest challenges to stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities is poor housing conditions and systemic racism in the health-care system

He said while there’s been “a real keen uptake first and foremost among the elders in long-term care facilities,” others remain hesitant.

“Indigenous people have felt like they’ve been used as guinea pigs and if you see some of the horrific stories coming out of the ’50s and ’60s, you see a health-care system that mistreats them,” Miller said, referring to Canada’s abusive treatment of Inuit people infected with Tuberculosis. 

He said the best way to encourage people to get vaccinated is by sharing information including in Indigenous languages and from respected community members, such as elders. 

Elder Helen Clifton, 95, of Gitga’at First Nation, B.C., rose to the challenge earlier this month by sharing in a Twitter video that she chose to get vaccinated to be a role model and encourage others to do the same.

“What’s precious to Granny should be precious to all the Gitga’at’s,” said the great grandmother. 

“Your family first and the vaccine and protecting your household. When you protect your household, you protect your family, and then your protection for everyone else and that should be good for all the residents of Gitga’at.” 

Also on HuffPost

‘He Had Lost All Hope.’ Inside A COVID Outbreak At A Saskatchewan Prison.

Christopher Yetman and Krystle Lapointe during a video call last year. Yetman is serving a three-year sentence at Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

When her boyfriend Christopher Yetman tested positive for COVID-19 during one of the worst Canadian prison outbreaks, Krystle Lapointe was beside herself with worry.

A couple of inmates contracted COVID-19 mid-December, Lapointe said. A few days later, nearly every one of the 45 plus inmates on the medium security range tested positive for the virus.  

Yetman, who is serving a three-year sentence, experienced fever, fatigue, a loss of smell and taste, sores in his mouth and then began coughing up bloody phlegm, Lapointe said. He asked repeatedly to see a doctor or nurse, but they never came. 

“It was hard not to believe he wasn’t going to make it. He was so empty and hollow and had lost all hope,” Lapointe told HuffPost Canada. 

The inmates continue to be on lockdown 23.5 hours a day because of the outbreak. Yetman calls when he’s able to, but communication remains sporadic and unpredictable.

“At that point you’re sitting there going, ‘are they even alive?’” Lapointe said. “This is probably the hardest thing I will ever go through in my life.” 

Yetman is now recovering from COVID-19, but said being confined to a five by 13-foot cell is extremely difficult. 

“It’s a little wear and tear on the mind,” said Yetman. Lapointe recorded a recent phone conversation for this story with his permission.

When the first inmates tested positive, Yetman said the guards didn’t immediately segregate them and the virus spread quickly in the close quarters. 

The guards’ response was, “’we know what’s happening, you just have to roll with it and they blamed us for it spreading,” he said.  

Correctional Service Canada does not know how the virus was first introduced into the prison, said spokesperson Kelly Dae Dash. Contract tracing and regular testing is underway.

Dae Dash said in order to ensure inmates physically distance, their movements “are kept to a minimum” and masks are mandatory. 

“Given the close living environment, positive inmates and close contacts are medically isolating in their cells,” Dae Dash said. “During the isolation period, inmates have access to health-care staff as well as institutional staff.” 

The federal government reported on Jan.10 that there were 33 active cases at the penitentiary, down from 69 on Thursday, three days earlier. One prisoner died due to complications related to COVID-19.

Some of the penitentiary’s most vulnerable inmates will receive their first doses of the Moderna vaccine as part of the national vaccine rollout. 

Up to 600 federal inmates across Canada, who are older and with underlying health conditions, will receive the vaccine in the coming weeks based on public health advice by the national Advisory Committee on Immunization, said Dae Dash.

“CSC has an obligation to provide essential health care to inmates. To this effect, we will be vaccinating the inmate population,” she said, noting that when more doses are available, all inmates will be vaccinated. 

Some corrections health-care staff have already been vaccinated, and more will be eligible soon. 

Yetman questioned why inmates rather than correctional officers are receiving the vaccine first. The guards go out into the community where they have a higher chance of contracting the virus and bringing it back to the prison. 

“Realistically, I would want us (the inmates) to get vaccinated first,” he said. “But there’s not a lot of guards here, maybe 10 to 15. That’s not a lot of doses. Divy it up and go about it that way.” 

This is not a crime decision, it’s a public health decision.Adelina Iftene, Dalhousie University

The vaccine pilot met with backlash last week, despite that it allotted only 0.05 per cent of the 1.2 million doses Canada will receive by the end of January. 

Critics, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, said no prisoners should receive the vaccine before seniors in long-term care homes, front-line workers, first responders and correctional workers.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop the pilot before it begins. 

“You’re giving the most dangerous criminals in the entire country (vaccines). How do you square this?” Ford said at a news conference Wednesday. “How do you put (inmates) ahead of long-term care patients?” 

Watch: Meet the 1st Canadians to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Story continues below.

These divisive comments from politicians are irresponsible and inflammatory, said Dalhousie University law professor Adelina Iftene. The federal government has a legal responsibility not to expose incarcerated people to higher rates of infections.

Almost a year into the pandemic, prisons continue to experience outbreaks and higher infection rates than in the outside community, she said. Along with Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Stoney Mountain in Manitoba and Joyceville Institution in Ontario have active cases. 

While vaccinating 600 inmates is not enough to stop outbreaks, Iftene says it’s a good start to protect the most vulnerable. 

“This is not a crime decision, it’s a public health decision,” she told HuffPost.

Politicians weighing in “fuels reactions from the public (who are) already extremely anxious and understandably so about the pandemic and the vaccine, about their loved ones. It misses the point of why prisoners should be prioritized.”

Lapointe said she’s well acquainted with the general public’s views on prisoners, describing comments she’s recently read online as “disgusting.” 

“At first I wanted to yell at everybody, but what was that going to help?” she said. “But then I got to the point of no one’s ever going to see things the same way (as me). They don’t have someone in here. To me, when Chris is in there, he’s not an inmate. He’s still human. 

“To think of him as an inmate who deserves nothing because he did something bad… it’s easy for everybody else to say, but when you know him as a person, it’s not the same.” 

Lapointe said she’ll let the government make the decisions about the vaccine roll out.