How First Nations Find Ways to Keep COVID-19 – and Strangers – Out

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On April 27, the Nuxalk First Nation, nestled in the Bella Coola Valley of British Columbia, simply stopped asking. Five weeks earlier, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the chief and council had declared a local state of emergency and set up a checkpoint on the only highway in the valley to restrict non-essential traffic . Like many remote and coastal communities in the province, and known for its salmon fishing, the Nuxalk are wary of the risk of infection that accompanies tourists visiting their territory.They did not know that over the next few days, the B.C. government would declare that fishing and hunting are essential services in the province, opening the door to movement within their territory. Although the British Columbia Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation insists that the province respect First Nations states of emergency and travel bans, it would not issue orders affecting trips inside and outside of these communities.

Instead of diverting visitors from the territory, the Nuxalk guards and hereditary chiefs simply followed the traffic on the provincial road in the valley, asking returning residents to isolate themselves and inviting tourists to reconsider their trips. It was until an epidemic struck Alert Bay, an island community off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, and claimed the life of a Namgis woman on 24 April, the province’s first COVID-19 victim in a First Nations community.

READ: Canada Desperately Needs Better Race-Based Health Data

The ripples were felt from top to bottom of the coast. Three days later, the Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and elected council members, led by chief counselor Wally Webber, unanimously ordered their own lockdown of the Bella Coola Valley and issued a public notice: from this at the moment, visitors and tourists would be turned back at the 80 km checkpoint outside the city; residents who left the valley for non-medical or non-essential purposes were at risk of being locked out upon return. “To look at the others [First] Nations, or other people, catch the virus and become “sacred shit” – it’s just unreal, “says Webber. “It shows us that we really need to start protecting our people.”

As local and provincial governments ease blockages and revive economies, vulnerable Indigenous communities across the country say they are fighting a tough battle to protect their residents. Although few have been exposed to the pathogen – sometimes because of the isolation that makes them medically vulnerable – they believe that the interests of their communities are not at the forefront of the leaders guiding the rest of the country during the pandemic. Some express a feeling of outright neglect on the part of the provinces and Ottawa and are taking an increasingly active hand to protect their people, even if public health measures do not fall under their jurisdiction.

Frustration is particularly high in remote First Nations, where leaders make common cause – and sometimes stumble their heads – with non-Aboriginal communities. In April, more than a dozen First Nations and municipalities on the north and central coasts of British Columbia wrote an open letter urging British Columbia. government to restrict non-essential travel to their territories. The combination of hot weather and the desire to escape weeks of containment, they warned, could only encourage visitors to practice sanctioned hunting and fishing; with them would come the threat of infection for remote communities that had not yet been exposed to it. But according to the signatories, this call for help went unanswered. A press release from the Haida Council of Nation on April 30 said that, more than three weeks later, they had received no indication that they would get the support they were looking for.

Transport Minister Claire Trevena finally responded to the letter on May 5, according to government officials, highlighting measures to reduce spurious traffic to coastal regions, such as posting road signs to discourage tours, passenger screening in British Columbia. ferries and instructing ferry terminal staff to alert travelers to blockages. But, while the minister’s response recognized the concerns of the communities, she added: “We must leave our ferries and our roads open for essential travel.”

READ: Coronavirus could decimate small, isolated communities in Nunavut

Webber, one of the signatories to the letter, says the province is sending a potentially deadly mixed message advising the public to stay at home while granting permission to fish, hunt and travel in First Nations territories. A housing shortage in the village of Bella Coola, part of which is on Nuxalk reserve land, has led to overcrowding, he notes, of five to 15 people living in one house, making the spread of the community almost impossible to control if a transporter gets past their checkpoint or lands on their shore. “They hold a gun over our heads allowing people to come here,” he says.

These fears are by no means limited to remote First Nations. Sioux Nation leaders Alexis Nakota, headquartered less than an hour’s drive northwest of Edmonton, closed their borders to foreigners at the end of March, creating a system passes for essential workers and permanent residents. Mohawk communities at the confluence of Ontario, Quebec and New York State have introduced similar controls or set up mobile clinics so residents don’t have to travel to neighboring cities to get tested. In almost every region of the country, indigenous leaders have taken an intensive course on how the virus spreads, trying to tailor prevention measures to the circumstances of their communities.

Housing is just one of the common risk factors that make First Nations people particularly vulnerable. Other factors include higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, malnutrition and poverty, according to Anna Banerji, an infectious disease and public health specialist at the University of Toronto.

READ: How Canada’s Struggle to Smooth the Curve

Banerji is leading an online petition urging the federal government to provide Indigenous communities with improved health care, as well as epidemic testing and control. In addition to health factors, she said, First Nations in remote areas are particularly at risk because they often lack access to health care infrastructure and resources to manage the disease. The petition calls for, among other things, rapid test kits, the construction of field hospitals and temporary quarantine accommodation, and calls on Ottawa to obtain the support of the Canadian Forces, Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. . “I regularly receive emails from chefs saying,” We are afraid, “says Banerji. “If an epidemic occurs, then many people get sick at once, and if you don’t have the ability to put them on a ventilator, those people will die.” ”

In mid-April, the federal government committed $ 305 million to help First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities respond to the pandemic. But for Canada’s 634 First Nations, which include 96 communities accessible by air, this is simply not enough, said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. “These dollars were spent to provide food for the most vulnerable, the elderly, those who stay at home, and to provide personal protective equipment,” says Bellegarde. He highlights the need to tackle the cost and challenges of transportation – particularly for air-accessible communities like Nunavut (although, as of late May, the territory had not yet reported any confirmed cases). “Will the federal or provincial governments cover transportation costs if you have to evacuate people from the communities?” he asks. “Because there are no hospitals. There are health clinics and often they are understaffed. ”

More than just financial support, Bellegarde calls for the inclusion of First Nations in the development of pandemic plans, which he says is lacking: “It is not just a federal government or governments provinces in Canada. There are the original governments of this country and there is a separate jurisdiction which must be respected and included in the future. “

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For the Heiltsuk Nation, on an island west of Bella Coola, a seat at the table begins with the disclosure – particularly the location of positive COVID-19 cases. Currently, B.C. only identifies the health region where patients live. The Bella Bella of Campbell Island, home to approximately 1,400 Heiltsuk, is owned by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which serves 1.25 million people – approximately one-quarter of the province’s population – and includes residents of Vancouver, Richmond and the North Shore. Although Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer, said that information is at the heart of public health (in particular, “knowing what our risks are, where they come from and who is affected”), she supports also that reporting communities can stigmatize those associated with them and cast a false sense of security on those who are not. Heiltsuk chief counselor Marilyn Slett can’t help but point out an uncomfortable irony: “Our communities live under stigma every day.”

So far, the Heiltsuk nation, like the Nuxalk, has managed to avoid infection. But Slett sees the secrecy of the confirmed cases as a slight attack on the First Nation on two levels: not only does it leave the community’s emergency response team working in the dark, but it effectively snubs an Aboriginal government that has existed for about 700 generations. “It is blindfolded on our people,” says Slett. “I know they have these general policies, but we are unique and we have a different story, so we have to take a look at it through our lenses. We must make sure that we are also protected. “

Kanesatake, west of Montreal, closed businesses on its territory in March to discourage visitors (Ryan Remiorz / CP)

Without provincial restrictions on travel to the area, or any other way to keep visitors from the remote island community, the Heiltsuk have passed regulations prohibiting travel to and from their traditional territory. But these bans are only as good as their wording and the authorities’ ability to enforce them. In more densely populated southern Quebec – one of the few places where provincial travel bans have been put in place – First Nations have taken additional measures to prevent spurious traffic. About an hour’s drive west of Montreal, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake sought in March to deter visitors by closing businesses in the area – a magnet for residents of surrounding communities who are looking to buy cannabis and cannabis. tobacco at great prices.

Québec’s regional traffic rules nevertheless allowed Montrealers and travelers from neighboring municipalities to venture into Kanesatake territory, which led the council to install checkpoints near its entrances to prohibit access to visitors. According to the great chief of Kanesatake, Serge Simon: “We know that it will happen. But will it happen without opposition, and as a wave of community propagation? Or are we going to set up a fight and make sure it happens in small manageable cases? ”

However, putting this idea into practice was less straightforward than it seemed. The Kanesatake territory includes dozens of land located in the neighboring village of Oka. To protect the Mohawk families living there, the Kanesatake also installed checkpoints outside the village. If a non-resident approaches, Simon says, “We tell them,” No, if you don’t have an address here, turn around and go home. “In response, Oka’s mayor, Pascal Quevillon, filed a complaint with the Quebec provincial police. and the Ministry of Transport, while threatening legal action against the council. Quevillon called the checkpoints acceptable on social media, saying they threatened the city’s economy while the province was reopening.

Although sympathetic to the plight of the local economy and businesses crippled by orderly closures, Simon says his priority is to ensure the health and safety of the entire community, which he believes will be possible until that there is a vaccine against the coronavirus. “We know we will have to adapt,” says Simon. “Right now we survive, then we look at the [province’s reopening] plan. In the meantime, her worries are increasingly going beyond physical health issues. Most of the approximately 60 fluent Mohawk speakers who remain in the community, he notes, are seniors who may be sensitive to the pathogen. “If we lose these elders,” he says, “our language goes with them.

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Returning to British Columbia, tensions appear to be lower between the Nuxalk, the provincial government and non-Aboriginal residents. Hereditary Chief Mike Tallio says all but a few of the drivers have cooperated with the guards at the checkpoint outside Bella Coola, noting, “We have had a few people who have passed through our high speed checkpoint. So far, he adds, no one has been injured and after the checkpoint has been crossed, the Nuxalk has contacted the RCMP to find the culprits. “We want to make sure they are examined, to see why they are putting people at risk,” he said.

Meanwhile, on May 22, Webber and Slett finally received a hearing with members of the BC Cabinet, with Henry, the provincial health worker, on a teleconference with community leaders from the north coasts. and central of the province. A statement by Scott Fraser, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation for British Columbia, recognized the “specific needs and unique circumstances” of Aboriginal and remote communities that responded to the pandemic and committed to regular dialogue with them as the reopening continues. However, for the time being, the province will continue to allow hunting and fishing as long as the public follows provincial health ordinances and directives, band council resolutions and travel advisories. “This means that hunters and fishermen must respect checkpoints and respect restrictions unless they provide services at the request of the First Nations community,” said a government spokesperson.

Although this has been going on for a long time, says Slett, the meeting provided a starting point for better communication. Meanwhile, for Nuxalk and Heiltsuk, travel restrictions and checkpoints remain essential until these nations feel safe again. Unless you express concern in “moderate dialogue,” says Slett, “there is little we can do.”


This article is printed in the July 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title, “The Struggle for Self-Isolation. »Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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