As B.C. eases restrictions, remote Indigenous communities fear travel could bring COVID-19

Ban hunting, fishing, and non-essential travel, Indigenous Nations tell government
Nuxalk checkpoint. Bella Coola Valley - Nuxalk Nation Coordinated Information Bulletin / Facebook
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This May long weekend, parts of Canada are easing restrictions put in place two months ago as part of the battle against COVID-19. For some, this brings a sense of relief. But others, especially those outside urban areas, fear this will heighten the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in their communities.

MORE COVERAGE COMING Ricochet is pleased to welcome Jerome Turner to our team as a staff writer. Over the coming months he will be covering the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities. Turner was one of the only journalists reporting from inside the RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en sites earlier this year, and his work has appeared everywhere from Ricochet and The Tyee to The Vancouver Sun and CBC. If you’d like to support Jerome’s reporting, please consider setting up a monthly donation to Ricochet. We’re a non-profit, crowdfunded national media outlet that serves the public interest.

Nearly every Indigenous community in central and northern B.C., from the Tahltan to the Haida, is denying access to visitors to protect community members from COVID-19, and calling on the premier to ban non-essential travel as the province enters the next phase of its restart plan. Already, as part of this second phase, “many front- and back-country trails, beaches, picnic areas, washroom facilities and boat launches for day-use” have been reopened, according to the government.

“We want them to tell people they must stay away. We are telling visitors to stay away and may even have to demand it to keep our communities safe,” said Garry Reece, mayor of the Lax Kw'alaams Band, in a joint release with the Metlakatla Band. Both communities are located north of Prince Rupert on the Pacific Coast.

“More isolated First Nations communities such as ours are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of this pandemic — one of many we have suffered through historically — as are the many members of both our nations who now live in Prince Rupert.”

The B.C. government’s decision to declare hunting and fishing “essential services” on April 23, 2020, has also alarmed Indigenous communities.

“We’re very concerned about the hunting and fishing that’s been added to the list of essential services,” said Linda Innes, Gitxaala (Kitkatla) Nation chief councillor, during an online conference called Our United Coast on May 3.

“I think it should be made clear that people should not be travelling beyond their local area to engage in these activities.”

Port Simpson (Lax Kw'alaams), B.C.
A.Davey

Loss of an elder

According to Indigenous leaders who took part in the online event, which was hosted by the Haida Nation to discuss COVID-19 travel restrictions in coastal communities in central and northern B.C., the messaging from the B.C. government has put unnecessary pressure on Indigenous and municipal authorities.

Premier Horgan has said small communities should not be put at risk by people travelling outside of their own communities. “Every corner of B.C. is spectacular,” he stated. “Wherever you live, stay there and enjoy it.”

And B.C. health minister Adrian Dix recently said, “No to non-essential travel,” recommending that residents stay in their home province.

But B.C. is also permitting fishing and hunting (black bear and wolf hunting is in season), which can encourage travel and increase the risk of someone bringing the coronavirus to remote communities. Given the number of sport fishers and hunters from B.C., Yukon, and Alberta who typically travel at this time of year, Indigenous communities worry their concerns are not being heard.

And they’ve been particularly anxious since the death of an elder from the Namgis Nation due to COVID-19. The elder lived in Alert Bay, a village on Cormorant Island to the northeast of Vancouver Island. The small island, home to about 1,500 people, is now the site of a coronavirus outbreak. Like numerous remote communities, Cormorant Island does not have the medical capacity to care for serious COVID-19 cases. The elder was taken for treatment to Nanaimo, where she passed away.

All Indigenous communities have had to make sacrifices in culture and ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions. Not being able to gather and grieve collectively for the lost elder has been difficult.

Her death also made clear how easily the coronavirus could reach remote Indigenous communities.

Central and northwest B.C.
Jerome Turner

‘We do that in our own local territory’

The coastal community of Gitxaala is a short ferry ride south of Prince Rupert. As part of its decision to restrict visitors, the community implemented a travel ban on March 26 and has established checkpoints to ensure only residents enter.

“If we need to hunt and fish, we do that in our own local territory,” Innes said. “I expect all within Canada would do the same. We’re asking the government to support us.”

Communities like Gitxaala that are accessible only by air or water saw an increase in ferry traffic over the Easter weekend in April, and they do not want to see a repeat of this. The reason is simple, according to Innes.

“We’ve lost many of our leaders in the past” to diseases such as smallpox and the Spanish flu, she said during the United Coast event. “We worked hard on a communicable disease plan here. If this isn’t in alignment with federal and provincial activities, we’re kind of missing the boat here. We don’t know who’s out there and where [they’re coming] from.”

Eight hours by ferry from Prince Rupert, off the northwest coast of B.C., lies the scenic archipelago of Haida Gwaii formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida fought a long struggle to gain greater control of and management over their traditional territories.

Although provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has made clear that Indigenous communities have the authority to limit access to visitors, the lack of provincial guidelines is forcing them to respond where necessary, said Gaagwiis (Jason Alsop), president of the Haida Nation.

As of May 7, the Haida Nation is working in concert with the North Coast Regional District’s Emergency Operations Centre to allow only essential workers and residents on the ferry from Prince Rupert to the islands of Haida Gwaii.

“We’re trying to come up with collective solutions,” Gaagwiis said at the United Coast event.

He noted the Haida travel restrictions, in place since March 23, were not just for visitors. “We also encouraged people not to leave Haida Gwaii, which was difficult for some as it was the beginning of spring break.”

Part of the scenic archipelago of Haida Gwaii.
Province of British Columbia

‘That’s close to us’

The windy road from Williams Lake descends sharply before reaching the community of Bella Coola, and that’s where guardians stand watch around the clock for the isolated community.

“We don’t see people out on the roads anymore,” said Nuxalk (Bella Coola) chief councillor Wally Webber. “We’ve gone down to an average of four to five vehicles from about 17 per day.”

The Nuxalk installed guardians on the road and in the harbour because the community hospital has only two ventilators, one for an adult and one for a child. And according to Webber, only three Nuxalk language speakers remain — all elders who would be vulnerable to COVID-19.

“There are cases in Williams Lake and Anahim [reserve],” said Webber, whose community is a six-hour drive west of Williams Lake. “That’s close to us, you know.”

This is Anuximana (Violet Tallio, nee Nelson). She was born on May 18, 1929 in Old Town. She will be 91 in three weeks...

Posted by Bella Coola Valley - Nuxalk Nation Coordinated Information Bulletin on Tuesday, 5 May 2020

In addition to asking for the B.C. government to close down hunting and fishing, the Nuxalk have reached out federally to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to ask for a shutdown of commercial fishing, which Webber feels cannot operate safely.

“There are going to be about 150 boats coming and there’s no way they’re going to be able to isolate,” Webber said. “The boats are gonna be tied up so close together.”

He also said the communal bathrooms would have to be cleaned after each person’s use.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has yet to respond to the Nuxalk’s request.

“Hopefully we can get the two governments to come and speak to us. They’re so quiet,” Webber said. “They’re not returning our letters. We’re just going, ‘Wow, what does it take to wake these guys up?’”

A seven-hour ferry ride west of the Nuxalk is the Heiltsuk Nation (Bella Bella), which also imposed a strict travel ban in March and shares concerns about commercial fishing, sport fishing and hunting.

The Heiltsuk travel ban currently stretches to May 31 and will be extended as needed.

Provincial government decisions to loosen travel restrictions do not change anything for the Heiltsuk, said Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, noting that the community has more than 200 members over 70 years old to think about.

“By continuing to work together, we can have an effect on the travel restrictions,” said Slett. “We want to make sure that COVID doesn’t reach the borders of Heiltsuk territory.”

The B.C. government’s decision to declare hunting and fishing “essential services” on April 23, 2020, has also alarmed Indigenous communities.

‘We can’t afford to have any curve whatsoever’

Community preservation and protection is also top of mind and action for Chad Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. He is currently away from his own communities in the north because he’s with his children, who live in Smithers, B.C.

No visitors are allowed into the Tahltan communities of Iskut, Dease Lake, and Telegraph Creek.

Day is trying to work with the provincial government to prohibit hunting in popular spots on Tahltan territory, but he is also prepared to move ahead without B.C.’s support.

“We’ll take matters into our own hands like we did with the jade and placer [mines] last summer,” he told Ricochet, referring to eviction notices the Tahltan Nation distributed to mining companies operating on its territory without consent. “We’ll do everything we have to do to keep the local communities safe.”

“This is in part to make sure [Tahltan] people don’t have to compete with other hunters. It’s very important in times like this that they have that local food source.”

Like other Indigenous Nations, the Tahltan Nation is maintaining its own protective measures rather than following B.C.'s restart plan.

Like other British Columbians, Day is thankful the international border remains closed. Tahltan communities typically see a lot of tourist traffic to and from Alaska, said Day.

“There’s no other way to get to Alaska but through Tahltan territory,” he said. “So we need to communicate to the outside world that we don’t want people going through our territory and stopping here.”

Word has been put out to neighbouring communities that even the gas stations, mainly in Iskut, are closed to visitors as well.

“We can’t afford to have any curve whatsoever. We’re just so far away and so vulnerable.”

Helicopter is normally the only emergency transportation that can get those in need to a hospital in time, said Day. The nearest hospitals are more than 450 kilometres away.

“We’ll see where things are at in the next several months,” said Day. The fall, when moose and elk hunting season really kicks off, is looming.

“We’re prepared to continue to tell hunters that they’re not welcome in Tahltan territory.”

Tahltan River.
Scott Lough

Collective leadership

There has been no provincial ban on ferry or air travel within B.C. to date, and Dr. Henry has stated that her office has no plans to implement one. As long as people follow guidelines, the province will not push to punish those choosing to enjoy the outdoors, she added.

The provincial and federal governments are being approached as partners in creating a safe future for all people, Gaawgwiis said at the United Coast event.

“Together with all of our different jurisdictions and authorities, we could put together a system that restricts travel but allows for essential services to continue but protecting our communities as well,” he said, referring to federal, provincial, and municipal governments working with Indigenous leadership.

But Indigenous leaders are also taking the lead and collaborating where their communities are concerned.

“This is obviously an unprecedented situation that we’re all dealing with. And the message that everybody is sharing is that we’re all in this together,” Gawgwiis said. “We see this as a threat to our Haida language speakers, our knowledge holders, and our elders.”

B.C. coastal communities have a common goal and a common audience in the federal and provincial governments, Marilyn Slett, Heiltsuk Nation chief councillor, declared at the United Coast event.

“We’re really trying to push that envelope to ensure none of our communities have a tragic ending,” said Slett.

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