Michael Redhead Champagne knows the danger of COVID-19 first-hand.
His parents continue to recover from the deadly virus; his mother was just taken off a ventilator and moved out of the intensive care ward. One of his best friends, who was just a year or two older than the 34-year-old Champagne, died last year.
Champagne, a social activist, has good reason to take part in a new campaign, Protect our People MB, which is aimed at educating Indigenous people, aged 18 to 35, about the vaccine, dispelling misinformation and convincing them to get the jab.
All Indigenous people 18 and older are eligible for the vaccine. Premier Brian Pallister said that as of today, everyone in the province 18 and older would become eligible.
The campaign will use social media platforms and will partner with First Nations leaders and influencers, people with significant followings on social media platforms, such as Champagne and musician Lenard Sumner.
"With my parents getting sick, friends passing, I want to take every available opportunity that I can to encourage people to punch COVID… by getting the vaccine," Champagne said.
The campaign is a collaboration between a number of chiefs groups, the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba and the provincial government.
Champagne said he has noticed some Indigenous people are afraid to get the vaccine.
"I think there are a lot of people who are afraid… of the health-care system. It’s not even the vaccine," he said.
"It’s reasonable if (Indigenous people) are mistrustful. I, too, have been mistrustful of the health-care system, and that’s why I’m involved because I want to speak to people who see those historical and current injustices and explain to them that taking the vaccine is a way to help."
Southern Chiefs Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels acknowledged there’s a degree of hesitancy.
"(Hesitancy) has a lot to do with history, the experiences our citizens have with the health system and the word of mouth... what their relatives have experienced in the health care system," said Daniels.
"We’re trying to shape that thinking toward a comfortability, people becoming comfortable with the idea of taking the vaccine. We’re getting… people who are very much looked on as role models in our community who can change that."
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said some northerners wanted elders and the vulnerable to have first crack at the vaccine.
"I know for some of our communities in the north, hesitancy was more so because people wanted to make sure elders and those most vulnerable had access to the vaccine first," Dumas said.
He said the campaign will point to the positives of getting the jab and reach out to younger people directly through social media.
"Our numbers are showing us on-reserve, our vaccination rates are on the high 80s to 90s (per cent) on coverage… But unfortunately, our numbers are also showing us our off-reserve communities are most at risk," Dumas said.
Highly contagious variants of concern are "affecting the younger populations in our community more so, so it’s important to do these drives and to draw more attention to the positive side of vaccination."
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.