‘We're still invisible’: Why Ontario needs Indigenous-led COVID-19 testing centres

Across the province, Indigenous groups are setting up assessment centres to fill what they call a gap in the health-care system
By Nick Dunne - Published on May 08, 2020
The Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre is located in Sudbury. (Photo courtesy of Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre)

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Around the beginning of April, Angela Recollet, executive director at Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, began working toward providing on-site testing for COVID-19. She thought the Sudbury facility could help fill a vital testing gap. “People are afraid to go get testing,” says Recollet. “There are a number of factors, but our folks don’t have a safe space that’s free of judgment … [and] racial attitudes coming in.” 

Aboriginal Health Access Centres, of which Shkagamik-Kwe is one, were founded in 1995. They offer the services of doctors, nurses, and traditional healers to support the mental and spiritual wellness of urban Indigenous populations. Now, these Indigenous health-care facilities in Ontario are establishing COVID-19 assessment centres in an effort to improve access to testing for the province’s underserved urban Indigenous population.

The Southwestern Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, which inspired Recollet’s plans for a pop-up centre, operates four locations between Windsor and London and began testing for COVID-19 on April 23. “[SOAHAC is] naturally positioned with our primary-care services to be able to extend that into the assessment and testing,” says Deanna Guernsey, SOAHAC’s client-care director. “We already have our client base — as well as relationships with the communities — that we provide primary care for within their communities.”

While the province has more than 120 assessment centres — which together have conducted 397,149 tests as of May 7 — the Ministry of Health says it does not track how many are Indigenous-run. “However, Indigenous communities have been encouraged to work with Ontario Health Regions to ensure culturally safe and geographic access to testing,” a spokesperson told TVO.org in an email.

Guernsey and her team ordered personal protective and testing equipment and received training from the Ministry of Health on how to administer the tests. “I didn't know whether we would get mandated at some point to be an assessment centre or whether it was just going to be Indigenous-led,” she says.

Recollet hopes to bring the model that SOAHAC established to the northeast, where the Indigenous population of just under 70,000 makes up 12 per cent of the total population, compared to the provincewide share of 2.7 per cent, according to 2016 census numbers. Yet there is no data on how COVID-19 has affected the urban Indigenous population — which makes up 80 per cent of Ontario’s Indigenous population. “Even in a world crisis,” Recollet says, “we're still invisible.” 

Historical and contemporary factors — including residential and day schools, medical experiments, and negative personal and family experiences — have contributed to the need for Indigenous-led health-care services and for COVID-19 testing, specifically, she says: “There's no way of sugar-coating this. Racist attitudes are still alive and well.” 

She is currently coordinating with community partners to try to make the assessment centre a reality. “Every day is looking different,” says Recollet of the project’s current status. “We’re committed to working with other organizations that we’ve built relationships with,” she adds, citing organizations including a nurse-practitioner-led clinic, the local community health centre, and volunteer doctors.

On April 10, Ontario’s chief medical officer, David Williams, told reporters that the province would not be collecting race-based data — on May 6, though, he announced that the province would begin doing so. For Recollet, the issue is secondary to her community’s immediate needs. “As far as racial-data collection with the world crisis right now, I don't think that's our priority,” Recollet says. “Our priority is making sure that we have access to the same resources to respond to this crisis that we're in.” 

Roberta Timothy, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, notes that, on its own, data isn’t enough. “Who's collecting the data is critical,” she says. “There's a lot of history in marginalized communities of being surveilled.” The way the data is used, she says, is far more important than its collection: “If this data is collected and it's not analyzed in a way that's going to be for the community or community members who are experiencing these types of disparities, it's a waste of data. It’s probably not going to create programs that are actually going to be changing people's lives.” 

Guernsey still sees value for the Indigenous population in collecting numbers. “It’s not too helpful on a day-to-day basis,” she says  “But I think, in the long term, it would really important to understand the full impact.” Her focus, too, is on the front lines: “For me, like I said, it's just an extension of primary care. We just wanted to provide another option, increase accessibility, and make sure that people are able to access their healthcare in a way that they choose.”

She’s encouraged by the responses she’s seen from Indigenous leadership, health-care providers, and social-service workers during COVID-19. “I haven't seen the level of collaboration in my years of working in health care down in the southwest that I have for that pandemic,” Guernsey says. “We're all the table and moving in the same direction to the other. I think that's amazing.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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