Public Health says officials and religious leaders are partnering together in hopes of reducing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
"We are trying very hard to reach out from the government perspective, but also from more local, trusted leaders," Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of Manitoba's Vaccination Task Force, says in a Wednesday press conference.
"We hear a lot about the different questions that people have or concerns that they have, that are not consistent with the science, but make people feel anxious, nonetheless."
During the conference, Reimer said that Mennonites in southern Manitoba particularly have less trust in the vaccine.
The province has been hesitant to publicly address religious groups after Hutterites, also of the Anabaptist tradition, faced public backlash last summer when the province announced they were struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks.
"At the end of the day, people are making decisions about their health and these are difficult decisions for some people" - Dr. Reimer
Reimer, who grew up in the predominantly Mennonite town of Winkler, says they are working with southern Manitoba religious leaders and will continue to do so.
"We have already started to meet with community and religious leaders to get their feedback on what they are seeing and experiencing, but also to provide them with the tools and information to be that trusted voice in their community."
Manitoba's Mennonite population is diverse, with varying denominations in the pacifist theology. First calling themselves the Swiss Brethern in the 16th century, the religious group faced government persecution since its beginning, due to their decision of rebaptizing adults.
"There is a long history in the Mennonite community going back to Russia and experiencing harms related to government," Reimer says.
Mennonites in Manitoba have even faced imprisonment over religious beliefs as recently as the 1940s when men who conscientiously objected to World War II military service were jailed. Others were made to do alternative service in work camps, including at Riding Mountain National Park.
Public Health says it is now experiencing the result of generations of distrust of the government as they ask Manitobans to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We know that for some people messages from the government are not going to be the ones that reach them."
Reimer created homemade videos for her loved ones in the early stages of the pandemic, explaining the virus to them to help dispel misinformation. Now, her task force is relying on religious leaders.
The province says it has noticed that leaders are getting vaccinated in communities facing hesitancy, but are struggling to advocate for the vaccine for some of their community members. It says misinformation, distrust of vaccines, and generations-long distrust in government is a common cause for hesitancy.
Reimer says this is not going to be a "quick fix."
"Reaching out to people who have concerns about the vaccine will take time and so we anticipate while we continue to focus a lot on the operations and getting doses out as quickly as possible, this work with some communities will have to continue at the same time, and in the background, and ongoing after the majority of Manitobans have received their second dose."
They are connecting with people like former pastors and municipal leadership to equip them with the information they need to speak with people who are hesitant about the vaccine or do not want to get it.
Earlier in May, Mennonite Church Manitoba's Executive Minister, and Morden native, Pastor Michael Pahl said in an interview that he had growing concerns over people in his region not following the Public Health Orders.
"For myself as a Christian and as a minister, I’m frustrated when I see other Christians flouting mask mandates and churches defying gathering restrictions. This is not the way of Jesus. Our highest act of worship—greater even than gathering together in worship—is to love God by loving our neighbours," Pahl said.
Officials are hoping to help the leaders lean on existing relationships, using language that is familiar to those in the communities.
"At the end of the day, people are making decisions about their health and these are difficult decisions for some people," Reimer says, anticipating vaccine education to continue long after most Manitobans have received their second COVID-19 dose.
Vaccine Task Force operations leader Johanu Botha says more information will be released regarding vaccine hesitancy in these communities. He also says that hesitancy is present across the province, including in younger First Nations communities. In previous weeks the province created an "Indigenous Influencer" program to encourage uptake.
We reached out to three Mennonite churches in the Southern Health Sante Sud region on Wednesday. One declined to comment and the other two have not yet replied.