University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health provides culturally safe vaccinations for Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous health experts at the University of Toronto are running a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Toronto’s Indigenous communities – part of an effort to marry public health measures with culturally appropriate care.

From left: Janet Smylie, Michael Anderson and Suzanne Stewart at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic for Indigenous Peoples run by Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health (photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The pop-up clinics on campus began in early April and runs once a week throughout May. The effort will continue until the community is vaccinated.

Rather than the anonymity of a mass vaccination effort, the focus is on a personalized experience without time restraints that is in keeping with traditional values, says clinic co-founder Suzanne Stewart, director of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s Waakebiness-Bryce Institute of Indigenous Health.

“We have an Elder outside greeting people as they come in and youth smudging people in the clinic,” says Stewart, who is an associate professor. “Because of the history and current context of harm by the biomedical system on Indigenous people, we emphasized making this a culturally safe and culturally based clinic.

“We provide a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for the multiple identities that comprise the Indigenous experience: status, no status, Métis, Two-Spirit, Black Indigenous, Inuit. All our people are welcomed and treated in a respectful way.”

The clinic came together quickly after staff from Na-Me-Res, a Waakebiness-Bryce community partner that was already running Auduzhe, a small vaccination clinic, asked Stewart if they could join forces to expand capacity. Stewart quickly obtained assistance from leaders of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the Temerty Faculty of Medicine to find a larger space. University Health Network and Auduzhe provided staff to administer the shots.

The pop-up space can accommodate 1,500 people a day, but only received around 400 doses initially. When the call first went out, the slots were filled in 30 hours, with only a few no-shows.


“We have an Elder outside greeting people as they come in and youth smudging people in the clinic,” says Associate Professor Suzanne Stewart, director of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute of Indigenous Health (photo by Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Personal relationships were the key to the clinic’s success, according to Stewart.

“A lot of Indigenous people in the community that I’m aware of would not have come forward to receive their vaccine if it had not been administered by Indigenous people in an Indigenous environment,” she says. “A lot of Indigenous people in Toronto rely on the relationships they have with Indigenous health professionals. If they know Dr. Janet Smylie, they will come. Or Dr. Suzanne Shoush, or me.

“They know us as people who want things to happen for the community – not for university reasons or research reasons. This clinic is a great example of community-based initiatives.”

Stewart says she has also noticed a positive change at U of T in terms of support for critical Indigenous health efforts.

“U of T really stepped up to this opportunity to support the Indigenous community,” she says. “Five or 10 years ago, I would have gotten a straight ‘No.’ This is a great example of a shift that’s happening in the university as well as in the hospital system to support Indigenous health in a way that’s ethical and appropriate, and addressing some aspects of reconciliation.

“It’s wonderful the way [Dalla Lana School of Public Health] and [Temerty Faculty of Medicine] supported this. I’m moved by the amount of kindness and generosity they’ve provided, and a little overwhelmed by it. It’s new for the university to be this way and I am very grateful to be part of it.”