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Dr. Daniele Behn-Smith talks strong medicine with Indigenous Child and Family Service Directors

While it is difficult to form a good understanding of a situation that is constantly changing, Dr. Daniele Behn-Smith offers compelling advice to manage change, observe public health orders and build resilience. 

Dr. Daniele Behn-Smith, Deputy Provincial Health Officer spoke with ICFS Directors about what we can do to keep our workplaces safe.

We are two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and many of us are feeling exhausted, both personally and professionally, as every time we get our bearings, there seems to be another announcement followed by more changes and more confusion.

At times it can be unclear how these regulations apply to Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies and how we, as leaders of these organizations, should navigate these changes. In a special webinar hosted last fall Deputy Provincial Health Officer Daniele Behn-Smith and Health Systems Impact Fellow Kate Jongbloed shared some insight into how we can best keep our staff, and the families and communities they serve, safe.

Since this presentation there have been many changes (the emergence of Omicron, widespread vaccination of most people in BC, access to boosters and the availability of vaccinations for children), nevertheless Behn-Smith’s perspectives provide us much needed advice to grapple with the ever-changing nature of this pandemic.

Indigenous Child Welfare is an essential service.

Unvaccinated individuals cannot be barred from accessing services. There are currently no public health orders specific to child welfare service provision. Some sectors, such as Health, have mandated vaccinations because not doing so would result in “significant risk” such as the collapse of the health care system due to short staffing. As well, both the federal government and the BC government have mandated vaccinations for public sector employees. These requirements apply whether employees are teleworking, working remotely or working on-site. In December 2021 MCFD implemented a requirement that all contract workers, including Delegated Agency staff visiting MCFD worksites must show proof of vaccination unless that worker has been compelled to visit the site due to legislation or policy.

The federal and provincial public sector mandates do not apply to employees of Indigenous child and family service delivery agencies. Some First Nations and Indigenous organizations have exercised self-determination and implemented their own vaccine mandates and additional restrictions beyond the scope of the provincial health orders for their communities. It’s important to note that any employer that bans unvaccinated individuals from attending work may be liable for any losses, including loss of employment and may be required to provide compensation.

Meetings required to do our work are exempt from the Order on Gatherings and Events.

This means team meetings or other meetings required to do our jobs are not limited by the order; however, any events, such as conferences or large in-person trainings are subject to the restrictions laid out in the order. Overall, we should be limiting non-essential in-person gatherings when possible.

Implementation is imperfect and can lead to tension.

Because of the collaborative nature of our work, we may have staff who have been mandated to vaccinate working alongside those who have not. Further, we often work with very vulnerable people in their homes and communities. The patchwork implementation may feel frustrating and risky; however, again, the threshold for mandatory vaccination in our sector has not been reached.

We must find an approach that balances self-determination with labour rights.

Some Nations have chosen to mandate vaccines for all staff and request that any Child Welfare workers entering their communities be fully vaccinated. These requests made by Nations should be accommodated as self-determination is one of the most important social determinants of health for Indigenous communities.

Covid is here to stay.

Covid is now considered endemic, meaning it will continue to circulate yearly much like the flu. This means, if agencies are frustrated by their inability to mandate vaccinations, rather than accommodating individual staff members short-term, permanent long-term solutions must be found. If an agency requires more control over vaccinations and regulations, they must seek legal counsel and make permanent changes to their Communicable Disease Plan.

Lastly, we need to keep talking.

Within our workplaces, communities and families, divisions between the vaccinated and un-vaccinated have strained communication, meaning it is crucial for us to keep talking if we want to be able to provide the best services we can. Vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous peoples is legitimate within the context of colonialism, but the more people we have vaccinated, the safer we will all be. Behn-Smith suggests talking about vaccines as “strong medicine” as we have always known how to use our medicines to keep well.

Much of the mainstream discussion around orders and vaccine mandates is focused on rights, but as Indigenous organizations we are most often focused on our responsibilities, to our co-workers, our community members and the children and families we serve. Continuing to emphasize our responsibilities to one another can help us to find a way forward in this ever-changing pandemic.