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Dreams dashed by vaccine rules

Three of Team EDN's archers weren't able to compete in this year's competition due to being unvaccinated. Courtesy Karonhiio Curotte

For many in the community, this week has been an exciting time to see familiar faces winning medals and mingling with other Indigenous athletes in Halifax as part of the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG). But for 13-year-old Kahionhatatie Cree, it’s been difficult to watch, after she was denied participation in the games for not being vaccinated.

“When the games came out, everybody was shocked to hear that the vaccine mandate was still a thing,” said Cree’s mother, Kwetiio Goodleaf. “Some people had it, a lot of people didn’t. So a lot of people were asking for exemption forms.”

In February, every single vaccine exemption request sent in by athletes from Kahnawake was rejected by NAIG. At the time, NAIG did not respond to The Eastern Door’s repeated requests for comment. Cree’s exemption forms were at the time rejected for being six days late, though others were rejected without clear reason, according to other coaches at the time. Goodleaf said that following a continued lack of communication from NAIG on the matter, and following discussions with other coaches, she had decided to send Cree to the games.

“Her father was going to take her at four in the morning, when the bus was leaving. And they called me at 10, six hours before she was supposed to leave,” Goodleaf said. “I didn’t want to bring up the vaccination conversation all over again. It was the point that they did this to a child who was all ready to go.”

Karonhiio Curotte, who is the head archery coach for Team Eastern Door and the North (EDN) lost three out of his six archers due to the strict vaccine regulations.

“I got a phone call on the Friday before we were leaving, saying that they lost their last court case and the archers that didn’t get their shots couldn’t come,” Curotte explained. 

Goodleaf was told by NAIG representatives that a legal remedy had been pursued concerning the lifting of vaccine mandates for NAIG athletes. The details of this attempted legal remedy are unclear, but Goodleaf was told that the case was lost, she said, meaning that athletes would still be required to be vaccinated. 

NAIG responded to The Eastern Door’s request for comment shortly before deadline. Their complete response is as follows:

“Policy for the Games is developed and decided on by the NAIG Council. The role of the 2023 NAIG Host Society is to implement the policy.”

NAIG did not comment on details about the apparent court case or individual cases related to vaccine exemption requests.

“The fact that we were only travelling with three instead of the six that we were supposed to was sad at first, they had all gotten to know each other early on,” Curotte said. 

He explained that a continued lack of clear communication from NAIG since the exemption forms were originally denied meant that his unvaccinated athletes had also started to “drop off” in the last few months, as continuing practice while uncertain if they could even compete was discouraging. 

“They were all enjoying themselves, but I started losing those archers that were unvaccinated,” he said. He also noted that he had not had any further communication from NAIG since the phone call, and vaccines had not been brought up at the games. “To them, the issue is over,” he said.

One of those archers was Team EDN basketball coach Walter Teioniatarathe Whitebean’s son.

“We left it up to him, and he decided not to go. It’s unfortunate, because this would’ve been his first experience at the games,” Whitebean said. “There’s a lot of kids like that sitting at home that are hurting right now. It’s Every Child Matters, but then only if you’re vaccinated. It’s not right. It’s the only thing in the world still mandating it. It doesn’t make sense.”

Team EDN head paddling coach Lanho Goodleaf said that to his knowledge, nobody has been asked about their vaccine status at the games.

“To be honest, since we’ve been here, I haven’t heard one thing of it,” he said. “Everybody’s been quiet. I think they might’ve got the message.”

Kwetiio said that though her daughter has tried to remain strong, it’s been a difficult week for her family. 

“I mean, six hours before your child’s going to leave, you’ve got to break their heart? There’s constantly something on the news, we have the news on all the time, but every time I turn it on they’re showing something from the games,” Kwetiio said. “I feel like I tried to protect my child by giving her all the information I can, and letting her have the freedom to make her own decision.… It’s like, why didn’t I protect her? I couldn’t protect her from this. It was a big institution that made the decision over my child. I couldn’t protect her from it.”

Kwetiio said that as of right now, she is unsure what action she will be taking, but she intends to follow up with NAIG in the coming weeks.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, July 21, in issue 32.29 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.