People north of the 53rd parallel know they have a health advocate in their corner.

The Northern Health Region's Chief Indigenous Health Officer is hoping to continue the relationships built and nurtured during the pandemic well after it is over. Charlene Lafreniere has found that there are challenges when it comes to Indigenous health care and is using her role to address them.

"As the Chief Indigenous Health Officer, my roles and responsibilities are around indigenous health in our region and creating opportunities for partnership and engagement, as well as supporting our system as the Northern Health Region to think, plan, and make decisions with an Indigenous lens, or in that is really important to Indigenous people and communities."

Indigenous people have health needs that are unique to this population, not because of health differences, but because of differences in treatment.  Dr. Marcia Anderson, the vice dean of Indigenous health, and public health lead for Manitoba First Nation PRCT previously said that in the healthcare system, Indigenous people are cared for differently because of long-standing systemic racism. This, in combination with other factors such as overcrowding, creates strong health care needs in communities. 

"These disproportionate effects of COVID-19 that are being experienced by the First Nations people are not due to inherent vulnerability," Anderson says. "Rather, this increasing proportion of new cases and overrepresentation amongst hospitalizations and of ICU admissions is rooted in long-standing structural factors."

While some communities continue to be hit harder by COVID-19 than others, Lafreniere says they are feeling hopeful as vaccines fly in.

Lafreniere says they have many communities in the vast north. Her role in identifying needs in the Indigenous population affects 70 per cent of the north. As a leader in the region, she has witnessed many people step up to help others.

"It creates opportunities for communities to collaborate and for all of us to be more informed."

The most impactful positive thing she has seen come out of the pandemic is improved communication.

"Health needs continue to be there, outside of pandemic issues. So creating access to experts during a time of uncertainty was really important and it is a collective collaborative conversation."

One move, the ability to ask experts questions, has helped many people in the north gain confidence in their health care system.

Their reason for hope does not stop at pending vaccines. Lafreniere has seen other community leaders step up to care for others in ways including offering shelter for Thompon's homeless population. The pending loosing of restrictions is a welcome change for people in the north.