Celebrating Nursing Leaders: Nursing students instrumental in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations to Indigenous communities

Paul First Nation was one of five Indigenous communities surrounding Edmonton that welcomed third-year nursing students from the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing.

Melanie Meardi - 01 December 2021

At the end of a gravel road just west of Duffield sits Paul First Nation, a tiny community on the Eastern shores of Lake Wabamun. A little over 100 years ago the 1918 influenza pandemic “decimated the people” of the Stoney tribes further south forcing them to migrate towards the land where Paul First Nation is located today. Indigenous populations at that time were much more susceptible to influenza due to a myriad of socio-environmental factors. Nationally, the mortality rate among Indigenous people was 5 times higher than the general population. 

One hundred years later, COVID-19 would again have a similar impact on the tight-knit community with higher than average positive cases as well as increased hospitalizations and deaths among elders and compromised individuals.   

Availability of COVID vaccines to select groups of Indigenous people in early 2021 offered a tool in combating the virus and ending the pandemic; however, the logistics of rolling out a community-wide vaccination program was — and still remains — complex.  

Both April Kantor and Nicole Giroux, Paul Band Health Centre’s public health nurses were working around the clock to mitigate the further spread of the virus through contact tracing, isolation efforts as well as continuing their day-to-day public health activities which constitutes a full-time job in itself. As vaccine eligibility expanded moving into spring, more support was needed. By this time Indigenous Services Canada had already initiated a COVID surge strategy with the intention of shoring up public health supports to Indigenous communities across Canada.  

In April, Paul First Nation was one of five Indigenous communities surrounding Edmonton that welcomed 3rd year nursing students from the University of Alberta Faculty of Nursing to assist in the rollout of COVID vaccinations. This was the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Faculty of Nursing and First Nations Inuit Health Branch to assist in the COVID surge capacity with the primary focus on helping out wherever was needed - all hands on deck. 

The collaboration also offered a unique and enriching learning opportunity for the students involved — truly a win-win scenario. Under the guidance of their instructor, the students completed a comprehensive medical and cultural training package to prepare for the experience before setting off. 

It would be safe to assume the Paul First Nation Health Centre is the heart of the community or very near the heart. It is a bustling place filled with warmth and camaraderie. The health and administrative staff are committed to engaging the community on their terms. The relationships between health centre staff and the community are integral to the success of a healthcare initiative; trust is paramount. 

Staff immediately put students at ease with their openness in answering questions and allowing students to set up the space they would be working in. Once oriented to the process, students took the lead in running the clinic which included all aspects of immunization health teaching, vaccine administration, post-care monitoring, vaccine management as well as keeping lines of communication open with clinic reception to ensure no vaccine was wasted. Students learned the importance of building collaboration and trust in community health nursing and how appropriate empathic relational communication can build that trust. 

Students adapted to creative initiatives to reach the broader community which included a vaccine blitz that coincided with a community barbeque. On a warm spring, day tents were set up in the parking lot where students administered over 50 shots to people who then enjoyed a burger afterwards, chatting with each other and staff in a celebratory atmosphere. T-shirts and swag bags were given to all vaccine recipients.

At one point in the day, a bald eagle circled slowly overhead. Eagles carry great significance in Indigenous culture with the belief they are directly linked to the Creator. As we both looked up watching the eagle go round and round, Marie Bird, the centre’s Health Director turned to me and said she had not seen one do that in a long time — it was a good sign.

Student Testimonials

"As far as my experience at Paul Band goes, it was definitely my favourite clinical rotation to date. The staff at the clinic were so supportive and trusting of us, which went a long way for me. I really enjoy being more autonomous in my practice, so being given the opportunity to essentially run their vaccine clinic with my two peers was a great way to work on building some more confidence and leadership skills while still having you [instructor] and the staff nurses around for guidance. I had already been considering rural/remote nursing for my career, so after my time on the Paul Band I realized that really is the primary area of nursing I want to pursue.”

Barbara Jones Layng, NURS 323 student

“This experience completely changed my perspective on community nursing. I had thought that community nursing would be impersonal, short interactions, however, this placement opened my eyes to the warmth and connection that comes along with a strong community. The staff at the health centre, and the community members that we worked with, all welcomed us with open arms and taught us so much about community health, culture, and resiliency. 

This placement shaped my future practice by solidifying my confidence in patient communication and showing me a love for rural and Indigenous health. I have chosen to do my preceptorship in rural health because of how inspired I was by my community health placement. Immunizing at Paul Band was the best clinical experience I have had thus far in the program and I am so grateful for my time spent there.”

Emalee Broen NURS 323 student

“Having the opportunity to experience healthcare from the indigenous perspective was eye-opening. That placement was about much more than just vaccinating the Paul First Nation community. We got first-hand insight into what healthcare looks like within the first nation population and what barriers they experience on a daily basis. We read about these issues in textbooks and articles, but unless you insert yourself in the communities there are personal stories and experiences that will never be heard. It was an amazing experience and I hope the nursing faculty is able to continue this partnership so more students can have similar experiences.”

Heritage Bomide NURS 323 Student