My name is Lianne Mantla-Look. I’m a registered nurse. I also practice casually as a community health nurse.
Currently we’re sitting in my mother’s house in Behchokǫ̀, Northwest Territories, which is approximately 100 kilometres outside of Yellowknife.
Northwest Territories is where I grew up, born and raised here. I did all of my education here: elementary school, high school. I left for college and university when I graduated high school.
I came back to the community in 2012 when my father died. I came back here to be a support to my mother and to work as a community health nurse.
Being from here, being aware of the community and the mindset of certain people, I knew that when COVID hit, it was going to be bad and it was going to spread. We had all the data, we knew how it was going to happen. Our community here is much like a lot of the smaller First Nations communities across Canada: lots of crowded housing, lots of families living in one household.
I didn’t start doing any of the real COVID work until January 2021. The way that happened is that one of my friends who’s also a nurse was on the immunization response team. We were visiting him at his home and he was asking me questions about the vaccine rollout. He was asking how to best go about informing the first community that it was going to be sent to. It was going to be in the Tłı̨chǫ region, and it was going to be Wekweètì, which is the smallest of the four communities here. He didn’t know how to go about doing this because he didn’t have any of the information for the leaders, the chiefs.
I just said, “Let’s call the Grand Chief. I know him.” My mother has worked with him for many years, so I just called him up to say it’s Lianne. He knew who I was, obviously. I said, “I’m sitting here with one of the organizers for the team that’s going to be coming out to roll out the Moderna vaccine to Wekweètì.” He said, “Okay, let’s do that.” And then he asked me, “Are you coming too?” I didn’t even think of it. So I asked, “Do you need more nurses? We might be able to implement the rollout a lot easier if I was there, because people from the community know me.”
My mother had just retired from education. I thought she might be able to help because she could facilitate the translation of the information for the Moderna vaccine. And especially if elders have questions about it, she would be right there on hand if needed. That definitely helped build relationships between the immunization response team and the communities.
There was an elder who came into the clinic. She didn’t recognize me, because again, I hadn’t been living here for a long time. I gestured to the chair and she sat down. She was really nervous. In very limited English, she asked about an interpreter, a translator.
And I looked at her and I said, in Tłı̨chǫ… “Why do you need an interpreter?” And the look on her face! She went from shock and then she laughed. And then she said, “You speak Tłı̨chǫ. I thought you were white.” And she laughed again. I laughed because that was funny.
She didn’t know who I was. She asked me who my parents were, and then she wanted to know who my grandparents were. That’s a form of introduction here: you have to say who you belong to.
Once we got my family connections out of the way, we were able to continue on with the appointment. At the end, she kept shaking my hand. She thanked me for being here, and she said she was so grateful to have a Tłı̨chǫ-speaking nurse in the community.
Helping people navigate the health system, that’s what brings me joy. If I can do it in my language, then you know that’s even better.
When we received the information about the Moderna vaccine at the time, it was all very clinical. And even though the communications team did try to make it easier for lay people to read, it was not easy to translate into an indigenous language.
When my mother was tasked with interpreting and translating, she had to make sure she could easily translate it so that people could understand, as well as making sure that it was factually correct in the way it was provided to us in English. That meant breaking down the words, and even then my mother still wasn’t sure the information was being put out there as accurately as it’s supposed to be. I know that made her nervous. There’s so much that can get lost in translation.
I found that the distrust towards the healthcare providers, especially when it came to the rollout of vaccines, came later, as the vaccine was being rolled out into the small communities. The idea was that the vaccine was developed too fast, even though the technology had been there for several years. It definitely hindered a lot of the relationship building between community people and the people who were responsible for administering the vaccines. There was conversation being had about it on social media, especially from leaders in smaller communities where, due to the residential school system, for example, there was a lot of distrust from indigenous people for healthcare providers. People are still dealing with the fallout of things that happened way back then.
What ended up happening was that people would challenge me — not even just me, there were other nurses as well — and basically try to catch us out by asking hard questions about the vaccine.
We had all the information. What surprised me was the reaction from people and all of the anger. To me, it was misdirected, because these decisions are made to keep people safe.
The other thing that shouldn’t have surprised me but did was when the anti-vax community grew to what it became. In smaller communities, they always say word travels fast. COVID misinformation travelled even faster. It was shared so much more quickly.
People, I found, were really quick to believe every single thing they read or heard, even if it was not true. I had a couple people accuse me of trying to poison them when I had to do contact tracing. A lot of the anger was directed at the healthcare providers. I was sworn at a lot.
It was difficult because it’s — honestly, there were so many days during my work in the pandemic that I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. It was exhausting. It was frustrating. I felt that it was a personal responsibility just to keep other people safe. What baffled me was that other people didn’t believe this or feel the same way.