SASKATOON -- A new paper published by the Canadian Medical Association journal focuses on medical experimentation and the roots of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous people. CTV Morning Live’s Stephanie Massicote spoke to one of the authors, Jaris Swidrovich, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy and Nutrition. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are Indigenous populations extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 across the country?

There often seems to be a false belief that Indigenous folks are genetically susceptible to certain conditions, although that would actually be false. The reasons why we are more susceptible to conditions like COVID-19 would be the various social determinants of health like housing, food security, access to health services, health prevention and illness prevention services too.

And when it comes to the vaccine rollout we need to look at past treatment of Indigenous peoples when it comes to the hesitancy to get vaccinated. Tell us more about this.

Right. And one thing I'll remind folks is that hesitancy does not mean refusal. Hesitancy implies, “I'm going to take a second to think about this.” Both historically and even currently and very recently we have examples of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in the health system.

This is something that Black, indigenous and people of color have known for a very long time but seems to now be on the social consciousness of the masses. We have heard about cases like Joyce Echaquan. We've heard about cases like Brian Lloyd Sinclair, and also forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women.

The other co-author of this paper, Ian Mosby, who's a historian at Ryerson University, it was his research that brought to light the nutritional experimentation that was done on children in residential schools without any formal ethics or approval processes. We even also know about the tuberculosis vaccine experimentation that was done years ago too.

So certainly vaccine hesitancy, there's a good reason for it among indigenous peoples across Canada.

Now, the rollout of these vaccines has been quick. We see hesitancy by a number of people unsure about the side effects but why is it important for us to understand the root cause, for Indigenous populations.

There's a concept called cultural safety and health care and I think that healthcare practitioners are getting better and better at this every day. But there's something more than being simply sensitive or providing a culturally safe environment, we really do need to understand these root causes, so that we can appreciate why someone might be hesitant.

For example, I feel that if many healthcare practitioners put themselves in the shoes of Indigenous folks and families and communities who have experienced these mistreatments and experimentations done throughout history that they'd probably feel hesitant too.

Also people have been cited saying, you know, it doesn't seem like I've been a priority before given that we still have dozens of communities without safe drinking water in Canada. So to suddenly be listed as a priority for vaccination sometimes feels a little off.

In the paper you talk about one of the major issues, the fact there's never really been a reckoning for the legacy of medical experimentation and other abuses targeted at Indigenous people. Do you see this happening anytime soon, are there talks happening?

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action, 94 calls to action were released by survivors of the residential school system. Some of these were in connection to mistreatment that has happened and still does happen. I do see us moving forward in a positive way in this regard but it's going to take some real work.

Even in my own professional pharmacy I'd like to partner with other historians to reflect on how pharmacists have been part of mistreatment in the past. Sometimes this is even based in times or decades where, you know, we thought we were doing the right thing but then later learned that that wasn't the right thing and that might be part of it, or maybe all of it in some cases, but it's going to require some investigation into the roles that we've all played, and then the appropriate apologies and reparations that follow.