Since his brother died two years ago, the holidays have been a quiet time for Vern Clayton and his parents.
This year was no different. The family kept the gifts and festivities to a minimum and Clayton made a simple Christmas dinner — meatballs with rice and gravy — for his parents, Victor and Verna.
It was the same day that he first noticed his father’s cough.
Five weeks later, Clayton had lost both of his parents, aged 73 and 74, to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected 163 people on the Nisga’a territory 1,500 kilometres north of Vancouver. Four have died, all of them Elders, according to Nisga’a Valley Health Authority.
Although vaccinations are expected to begin in the community any day, some wonder why they didn’t start sooner and whether they could have saved lives.
“I never thought it would happen like this, that it would take both my parents,” Clayton says over the phone from his home in Laxgalts’ap (Greenville). “It’s pretty devastating.”
Clayton had his own close call after testing positive for the virus.
In early January, he was isolating at a Terrace hotel near Mills Memorial Hospital almost 150 kilometres south of his home.
His father was also isolating in the hotel while his mom had been admitted to the hospital, which is one of three COVID-19 emergency response centres in the North. “She didn’t want to go to the hotel. She was scared to be by herself,” Clayton says.
During a routine call, a nurse asked him to check his oxygen levels. They were dangerously low. She told him to call an ambulance.
“I got to the hospital and not even two hours later, my dad, Victor Clayton, was beside me in the same room,” he says.
Clayton says his father was too sick for conversation in the two days they shared a hospital room. Then the Elder Clayton joined his wife in intensive care.
Clayton was still convalescing in hospital when he got the call nearly two weeks later that his father wasn’t doing well. “I put my shoes on, and I didn’t feel myself running down the hallway and down the stairs,” he says.
When his father died 11 minutes later, Clayton was holding his hands.
He told his mother, who was still in intensive care, the same day. “She was in disbelief.”
Nine days later, his mother also died. The couple, who grew up and were introduced in Prince Rupert, had been married 43 years.
“COVID’s no joke. I’m telling you, it’s devastating to lose two parents at the same time, in the same month,” Clayton says. “It’s getting real now.”
B.C.’s COVID-19 immunization plan prioritizes “remote and isolated Indigenous communities” in Phase 1, which began in December and is set to wrap up at the end of this month. Indigenous communities not vaccinated during the first phase are scheduled as part of Phase 2, set to complete March 31.
But how the province is prioritizing communities or how “remote and isolated” is defined isn’t clear.
At a pandemic briefing last week, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said 12,800 initial vaccinations had been administered in remote and isolated Indigenous communities, and an additional 247 individuals had received their second doses.
In total, more than 15,500 First Nations individuals, both in and outside those communities, have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to First Nations Health Authority.
The target, Dix said, is to send 25,000 doses to remote and isolated communities by the end of March.
He added that the province still intends to meet that goal despite delays in getting vaccines, with the federal government promising to increase shipments to make up for postponed doses.
“Obviously, the reduction in vaccine supply, particularly in this case Moderna, creates some challenges, but we’re expecting to achieve our target on the assumption of increased supply in March,” Dix said.
Out of two vaccines approved in Canada, only Moderna is appropriate for remote communities like those in the Nisga’a territory in the Nass Valley. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, Moderna doesn’t need to be stored at extremely low temperatures and can be broken down into smaller shipments.
But supply chain issues have delayed Moderna shipments to Canada, with the most recent shipment 22-per-cent smaller than expected. The next Moderna shipment is slated for Feb. 22.
But it’s unclear why some communities, such as Kitselas First Nations, which is within Terrace’s city limits, have been prioritized while others wait. The First Nation announced Jan. 22 that it had been bumped up the queue due to a COVID-19 cluster in the community.
By then, the Nisga’a Nation was experiencing its third cluster. Since August, it has three times declared a state of local emergency. It was initially slated to receive its first vaccines in early January, but they were postponed with only a few days’ notice. They have been rescheduled for this week.
As a cold snap takes hold of the province and pandemic fatigue sets in, Tamara Guimond, chairperson for the Nisga’a Valley Health Authority’s board of directors, says the delays are crushing.
“For a period of time, people were looking towards that beacon of hope that is the vaccine, and now we are at somewhat of a standstill in Canada with vaccines,” she says.
At a media briefing Jan. 14, First Nations Health Authority chief medical health officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said the authority was working collaboratively with the provincial health office and regional health authorities to determine vaccine rollout in B.C.’s 203 First Nation communities. She added that 55,000 people over age 18 are living on reserves in the province.
McDonald said 19 First Nation communities had been vaccinated by mid-January. FNHA declined to provide an update on whether additional communities had received vaccines in the weeks since.
FNHA also did not respond to questions about how Indigenous communities are being prioritized for the vaccine. The Tyee made the same request to the Northern Health Authority, which said the decision is made at the provincial level. B.C.’s Ministry of Health did not respond to questions before deadline.
Guimond has been asking the same questions.
“What I could not understand, and what I found so upsetting, was that we had a similar amount of illnesses, we had deaths, and yet we still waited — and we’re still waiting,” she says. “There are so many people trying so hard. But in the process, the crux of this is that the Nisga’a community was not included in the first part of the triage process.”
She estimates that 800 vaccines are needed initially to protect elderly and vulnerable people in the Nisga’a communities.
For some, the vaccine may come too late, she says.
“It is a tragedy what is going on. I don’t cast blame, but it is unimaginable what has happened, and it’s going to get worse,” she says.
On Tuesday afternoon, Eva Clayton, president of the Nisga’a Lisims Government, confirmed vaccines would go ahead in the communities this week. She says the nation’s unique relationship with B.C. since it signed the province’s first modern-day treaty more than 20 years ago allows it to work government-to-government with the province.
She says the nation met with Dix on Sunday and was assured the vaccinations would go ahead this week. About 4,000 Nisga’a live on the territory and all those over 18 will be eligible.
“Our citizens are very anxious to get the vaccine,” Clayton says. “Of course, there are those citizens who are apprehensive because of the uncertainties with potential side effects. So, it’s a mixture — it’s a whole mixture of emotions.”
It’s normally a time when the communities would be gearing up for Hobiyee, an event that brings up to a dozen First Nations to the Nass Valley in late February to celebrate the beginning of the nation’s new year and the return of salmon and oolichan, food staples for the Nisga’a.
But events like Hobiyee are currently on hold.
“It’s very challenging when it comes to our Nisga’a culture,” Clayton says. “We can no longer gather if we want to comfort one another, especially during a death. It’s very trying on our people.”
For Vern Clayton, the isolation is especially acute. The apartment that he shared with his parents is becoming increasingly empty as their possessions are moved out. As it’s in a seniors’ residence owned by the village, he too will eventually have to leave.
Last week, he buried both parents in a small ceremony at their graveside.
“The sad thing was, none of us could sit down and have a meal. That’s what really hurts me is, we are all family oriented. But this COVID-19’s really screwed with our culture,” he says. “Everything had to be done outdoors, and everyone had to stay six feet apart.”
When it’s safe, he says, the community will hold a proper feast for the Claytons.
“We, as Nisga’a, we all stand together, and we all grieve together. It is a pretty big loss, losing those two, my mother and my father,” he says.
“It’s hard. It really is hard.”