Hundreds of non-medical masks with Indigenous flair made for First Nations communities

'It's important, I think, to protect people as much as possible'

CBC News ยท Posted: May 19, 2020 5:49 PM PT | Last Updated: May 19 
Non-medical face masks featuring Indigenous designs have been a hit with B.C. First Nations, according to Shelly Johnson, who has sewn 700 of them. (Thompson Rivers University)

Shelly Johnson is a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., and the Canada research chair in Indigenizing Higher Education, but since the COVID-19 pandemic began, she's taken on another role: making non-medical masks with an Indigenous flair. 

In March, her daughter, a registered nurse on Vancouver Island, fell ill and was tested for COVID-19. Her test came back negative, but her illness had her concerned about droplet transference. She knew her mother had lots of extra fabric, much of which had Indigenous patterns from her days making traditional star blankets, so she asked her to make her a mask. 

"[I have] just about every colour and every pattern that you can think of," Johnson told Daybreak Kamloops host Shelley Joyce. 

Johnson made one mask for her daughter, and one each for her and her husband.  

Non-Indigenous organizations, such as the B.C. Nurses Union and the Ending Violence Association of B.C., also put in requests for the unique masks.

"It is not so much for the person that is wearing it but for the people that they will come in contact with," Johnson said. 

"It's important, I think, to protect people as much as possible." 

Shelly Johnson's husband, Myles Clay, poses with the 100 masks made for the Stellat'en First Nation. (Thompson Rivers University)

The request list kept growing: a healing centre in the Northwest Territories, a healing lodge for incarcerated people, a health agency in Kamloops, two former students living in Israel and the Navajo Nation in the U.S. have all put in requests.

To keep up with the demand, she turned to her husband, Myles Clay.  

"He'd never been around a sewing machine or you know, fabric. That was sort of my thing," Johnson said. "But I taught him how to pin in and how to cut fabric, and he just got right in there and helped."

Johnson and Clay have made 700 masks, all of which have been given away for free, and Johnson has been added to a national list of Indigenous people making PPE, compiled by the Assembly of First Nations.