Ceremonial cleansing creates culturally safe space for immunization

April 8, 2021

Indigenous Elder Loretta Parenteau-English, centre, conducted a traditional smudging ceremony to cleanse and purify the new COVID-19 immunization centre in Grande Prairie, which has the capacity to serve 1,300 clients a day. Here, Parenteau-English is shown with her helpers Leanna Willier, left, and Kelly Benning of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre.

Indigenous Elder Loretta Parenteau-English, centre, conducted a traditional smudging ceremony to cleanse and purify the new COVID-19 immunization centre in Grande Prairie, which has the capacity to serve 1,300 clients a day. Here, Parenteau-English is shown with her helpers Leanna Willier, left, and Kelly Benning of the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre. Photo by Sara Blake.

Partnership with Friendship Centre aims to remove barriers, encourage COVID-19 vaccination

Story and photo by Sara Blake

GRANDE PRAIRIE — Alberta Health Services (AHS) is building on its partnership with the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre to create a welcoming space where Indigenous community members can feel comfortable receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.

A smudging ceremony was held at the Teresa Sargent Hall here just prior to the opening of a large-scale COVID-19 immunization centre. Smudging is a traditional First Nations ceremony involving prayer and the burning of sacred medicines, such sage or sweetgrass.

Loretta Parenteau-English, the Indigenous Elder in residence with Grande Prairie Regional College, performed the traditional ceremony in preparation for the clinic’s opening.

“Everybody has a different interpretation, but I believe that smudging is a form of cleansing,” says Parenteau-English. “It’s a purification of ourselves and of the space. Knowing that the area has been cleansed on a spiritual level, I’m hoping will help some overcome their fear of getting the vaccine.”

AHS Indigenous Health facilitated the connections and Kelly Benning with the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre helped to organize the event.

“There has been a lot of vaccine hesitancy and worry in the community of course, given Canada’s history and medical history with the Indigenous community,” says Benning, who also serves as the vice-president of the National Association of Friendship Centres

“Our Indigenous leadership has worked really hard to ease peoples’ anxiety around that, to make sure we keep ourselves, our families and our communities safe.”

Patricia Nordstrom, AHS public health manager for Grande Prairie, says the smudging is an extension of her department’s ongoing work with the Friendship Centre to help support local Indigenous families.

“We’ve had a really good relationship with the Friendship Centre for a long time,” she says. “Public Health nurses support their Babies Best Start program, we go there annually for influenza clinics, and for other drop-in events for street-involved people. It’s important. We want to do everything we can to make sure everyone feels supported and welcome in AHS clinics.”

For the clinic space, the city of Grande Prairie offered the Teresa Sargent Hall — located inside the Montrose Cultural Centre — which offers ample parking and accessibility for people getting their COVID immunizations. The site has about 60 immunization stations and will be open between eight to 12 hours a day to serve eligible Albertans with a pre-booked appointment. Depending on vaccine availability, 900 to 1,300 clients will be served at the site, seven days a week.

Catherine Ridgeway, events and entertainment manager for the city, says the smudging provided her a good opportunity for reflection.

“During the prayer, I was thinking about all of the people who will be coming through here — all the nurses and community members — and what they’re going to be doing here to get immunized,” says Ridgeway. “It was really powerful and puts it all into perspective. Hopefully, we’re getting towards the end of this pandemic.”

Benning says she’s also hopeful, and adds that many in the Indigenous community feel the same way.

“We want to be part of the solution, and be vaccine-confident rather than vaccination-hesitant,” she says. “We arranged for Loretta to come in and cleanse the space so that it has a good feeling — a good vibe — so all people feel welcome.”

Parenteau-English adds: “I think it’s really important to be diligent and encourage people to get the inoculation.

“I just lost a brother-in-law to COVID. I pray for the families that have lost loved ones, and I pray for the families who have people who are sick, to help themselves and heal themselves and to stay safe."

Albertans can check their vaccine eligibility and book their appointment using AHS’ online booking tool, at www.ahs.ca/covidvaccine or by calling Health Link at 811.