Hundreds of grateful Canadians flock to border after Blackfeet Tribe in Montana offers COVID vaccines to all

·5 min read
Bonnie Healey, health director for the Blackfoot Confederacy, chats with southern Alberta residents lining up at the border crossing at Carway, Alta., to get shots of a COVID-19 vaccine from the Blackfeet Tribe at a mobile clinic just over the border in Montana on May 18, 2021.  (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press - image credit)
Bonnie Healey, health director for the Blackfoot Confederacy, chats with southern Alberta residents lining up at the border crossing at Carway, Alta., to get shots of a COVID-19 vaccine from the Blackfeet Tribe at a mobile clinic just over the border in Montana on May 18, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press - image credit)

Linda Neilson had waited a long time to get her second COVID-19 vaccination — and thanks to the generosity of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, the Alberta woman's wait ended at the Canada-United States border on Tuesday.

Neilson, who is from nearby Cardston, Alta., was in one of hundreds of vehicles lined up at the Carway crossing in southern Alberta to go for a free COVID-19 vaccination at a mobile clinic set up on the U.S. side of the border.

The Blackfeet Tribe, based in Montana just 150 kilometres south of Lethbridge, Alta., had an abundance of vaccine and decided last month to share it with Canadians rather than let it go to waste. Initially it was just open to First Nations, but the tribe soon decided to offer it to everybody.

"I'm going to be all done, finally. It feels great. It's been a bit of a wait, but it's worth it," said Neilson, who received her first shot of Moderna in March.

"I was amazed and grateful because it's too slow getting it any other way. We're just glad they were able to help us."

Sherry Cross Child, who lives in Stand Off, Alta., gets her shot on Tuesday at the mobile clinic offered by the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana. The clinic vaccinated more than 450 of Canadian at its first clinic in late April and hundreds more lined up when it offered the clinic again on Tuesday.
Sherry Cross Child, who lives in Stand Off, Alta., gets her shot on Tuesday at the mobile clinic offered by the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana. The clinic vaccinated more than 450 of Canadian at its first clinic in late April and hundreds more lined up when it offered the clinic again on Tuesday. (Iris Samuels/The Associated Press)

It initially took about a week to get approval from the tribal administration and both the Canadian and United States governments to set up the mobile clinic.

Albertans who attend the clinic are given exemptions from having to quarantine for 14 days. They line up in their cars, drive through a loop that takes them just across the border, receive their shots through the window, are monitored for 15 minutes and return home.

Health workers from the Blackfeet Tribe and members of the Montana National Guard administer the vaccine.

The Blackfeet Tribe offered an initial two-day clinic in late April, vaccinating more than 450 people.

Sleeping in cars, driving hundreds of kilometres

Tuesday marked the second offering of shots. The lineup was more than a kilometre long by 9 a.m. Some people slept in their cars on the highway and on road allowances to ensure they got a turn before supply ran out.

Roberta Wagner, foreground, a health clinic administrator for the Blackfeet Tribe, prepares COVID-19 vaccine doses to be administered to Canadian residents on April 29, 2021.
Roberta Wagner, foreground, a health clinic administrator for the Blackfeet Tribe, prepares COVID-19 vaccine doses to be administered to Canadian residents on April 29, 2021. (Iris Samuels/The Associated Press)

That's what happened to Ken Sawatzky when he made the 620-kilometre round trip from Calgary a couple of weeks ago. He wanted to get his booster shot because his wife is a cancer patient.

He made the same long road trip on Tuesday.

"She's fully inoculated. This will make sure we're both safe, because I'm her caregiver, too. I think it's a great thing," said Sawatzky.

"I'm looking forward to getting this done. I'll sleep better."

'I had a hard time believing it was that hard to get a shot in Canada'

Bonnie Healy, health director for the Blackfoot Confederacy, helped co-ordinate the vaccination clinic. She said the response has been overwhelming.

"I had a hard time believing it was that hard to get a shot in Canada. A lot of people are coming for a second dose," Healy said.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent directs a driver after the passenger received a COVID-19 vaccine from nurses at the mobile clinic on April 29, 2021.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent directs a driver after the passenger received a COVID-19 vaccine from nurses at the mobile clinic on April 29, 2021. (Iris Samuels/The Associated Press)

One man flew in from Toronto the last time around, drove to the site, got his shot and flew home, she said.

"We had a car full of 18-year-old girls and another car full of 18-year-old boys," Healy said.

"They were all coming to get their first vaccination. They were all celebrating it."

Catherine Bechard, regional Indigenous Affairs adviser for the Canada Border Services Agency, said she jumped at a chance to help out at the clinic.

"It's just an amazing thing what they're doing and a gift they're giving to Canadians," Bechard said.

Dave and Cathy Goodbrand also drove the 260 kilometres from Calgary to get their second shots.

A enterprising teenager selling popcorn skateboards up and down the lineup of Canadians waiting at the Carway border crossing on May 18, 2021.
A enterprising teenager selling popcorn skateboards up and down the lineup of Canadians waiting at the Carway border crossing on May 18, 2021.(Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"We're happy to get down here. It's a relief. Four months is too long to wait in between vaccines," said Cathy Goodbrand.

"It's absolutely beautiful. The Blackfoot Indians are just coming through (for us)."

Alberta reaches vaccine milestone amid battle against highest case rate

On Tuesday, Alberta reported 877 new cases of COVID-19 and 20,013 active cases. The total cases have been dropping gradually since the United Conservative Party government imposed stricter public-health restrictions after total active cases surged to a new high earlier in the month.

Alberta has had the highest active-case rate per 100,000 people of all provinces and territories in Canada for weeks.

However, the province said Tuesday it has reached a milestone, with more than half of Albertans aged 12 and over now vaccinated with at least one dose.

  • To see how many people have got vaccinated in each area of Alberta, by age and more, see:

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