FILE – A group of Prince Rupert residents belonging to the Haida Nation, formed an assembly at the Highway 16 and Park Ave. entrance to BC Ferries on April 30, 2020, to inform passengers and vehicles arriving that Haida Gwaii is closed to visitors due to the coronavirus. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

‘It’s really frustrating’: B.C. Indigenous groups share impact of border closures

The closures have resulted in disputes between Indigenous groups and local businesses

Indigenous bands along the west coast of British Columbia say their borders will remain closed to tourists and non-residents, despite the economic impact, as they work to raise awareness about the threat COVID-19 poses to their communities.

The Nuu-chah-nulth, the Heiltsuk Nation and the Haida Nation have all closed or restricted access to their territories and reserves.

“Of course it’s negatively impacting. But our directors have said, our chiefs have said, people before economics,” said Judith Sayers, the president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, in an interview. “I think everyone is slowly realizing the impact economically, but right now we just really feel that we want to protect the members first.”

Members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, made up of 14 First Nations along the west coast of Vancouver Island, have deployed a variety of tactics to help ensure their borders are kept sealed from non-residents.

Members of the Ahousaht First Nation, who live in the remote area of Flores Island, have deputized citizens to act as peacekeeping officers, Sayers said.

The Ahousaht issued a notice on July 2 that their territory, which covers a large area of land and water north of Tofino, B.C., including provincial parks, will remain closed to tourists and non-residents as there “is still no vaccine, no anti-serum and no cure for COVID-19.”

Others, like the Tla-o-qui-aht in Tofino, stopped cars in an effort to convince them to turn around.

The concern, Sayers says, lies in the ability to test and contain any potential COVID-19 outbreak.

“A lot of our communities are remote and testing is not easily available,” she said. “If you’re in Port Alberni, or Nanaimo, or Victoria, or somewhere (else), you can get testing and get results in 24 hours. It’s not the same with our communities.”

The closures have resulted in disputes between Indigenous groups and local businesses.

The Haida Nation in Haida Gwaii have turned away non-residents at the ferry terminal, discouraged leisure travel and called on two local fishing lodges to rethink their reopening plans.

“We’re such a close-knit community, I think that once we get a case of COVID, I think that it’ll spread like wildfire,” said Duffy Edgars, the Chief Councillor of the Old Massett Village Council in Haida Gwaii.

READ MORE: Haida Nation reminds ‘select few’ fishing lodges that Haida Gwaii is closed to non-essential travel

Edgars said many local fishing lodges are respecting the Haida Nation’s state of emergency, but is frustrated by others who want to open up.

“It’s disrespectful,” he said. “These bigger (lodges) are coming in and just doing whatever they want.”

Leaders and representatives from the Nuu-chah-nulth, Heiltsuk and Haida all say they would like to see more co-operation from the provincial government in working with Indigenous communities.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Marilyn Slett, the chief councillor of the Heiltsuk. “We have a limited amount of time here, we think, before that anticipated second or third wave so right now is the time for us to be sitting down and having those discussions so going forward we’re all working collaboratively together.”

Part of the issue, she says, lies in B.C. politicians encouraging residents to take part in inter-provincial tourism.

“We’re seeing a lot more vessel traffic on the coast, we’re seeing a lot more recreational boaters, and that’s a really high concern for our community,” said Slett.

The closures — many of which began in March — have been felt at a variety of levels.

READ MORE: B.C. reopening travel not sitting well with several First Nations

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the Heiltsuk’s Spawn-on-Kelp fishery this year, an event Slett says employs 700 people and is a hugely important economic driver for the community.

“Certainly our community put forward the health and safety before the economic driver,” she said. “So our community has been hit hard.”

Sayers says when the pandemic first broke out and restrictions were placed on communities, First Nations were bringing in food for members so they didn’t have to leave their reserves and face possible exposure at grocery stores.

The Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-Nulth and the Tsilhqot’in issued a statement in late June, criticizing the provincial government’s reopening plan and what they saw as a lack of dialogue with First Nations groups.

All three want the province to commit to four conditions which would allow border restrictions being lifted: COVID-19 information sharing, screening, rapid testing and culturally-safe contract tracing teams.

Until those are met, Slett says, she can’t see Indigenous communities fully opening their borders.

But the provincial government says it is committed to working with Indigenous communities.

“Many tourist-depending communities are now safely welcoming the gradual return of out-of-town visitors,” said Sarah Plank, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. “At the same time, we acknowledge some smaller and more remote communities and First Nations continue to be concerned about visitors to their communities.”

The government is also working on scheduling a meeting with the Nuu-chah-nulth, Tsilquot’in, Heiltsuk and Haida Nations and other communities, she added.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusIndigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rose Valley Dam wildfire ‘under control’

B.C. Wildfire anticipates no further growth from the three-hectare fire

Central Okanagan residents invited to give input on regional transport plan

The plan will help Central Okanagan governments work together to connect people and places across the region

Okanagan set for thunderstorms before sunny weekend

Thunderstorms are predicted to give way to a hot, sunny weekend around Kelowna

Body of 21-year-old man found in Okanagan Lake

BC Coroners Service is investigating the circumstances of the man’s death

UBC Okanagan caps digital fees per course amid COVID-19

The UBCO student senate capped fees at $65 per class for the first winter term in 2020

Airlines dispute Dr. Henry’s claim they ‘very rarely’ give accurate COVID contact tracing info

Air Canada, WestJet say they provide names and contact information

Masks urged for some students returning to Vernon schools

Phase two sees students return full-time Sept. 8

B.C. Appeal Court prevents Victoria woman from using the term ‘death midwife’ in her job

Pashta MaryMoon claimed she had been providing “death-care services” for more than 40 years

COLUMN: COVID-19 contact tracing app offers innovative approach

App designed to help monitor spread of pandemic in Canada

‘We all have anxieties’: B.C.’s top doctor addresses return-to-school fears amid COVID-19

Dr. Bonnie Henry promises school restart plan safe for B.C. kids

Abbotsford mom worried about her two kids in Beirut following explosion

Shelley Beyak’s children were abducted by their dad in 2018

Young Canadians, hospitality workers bear the brunt of mental strain in 2020: report

A study by Morneau Shepell points to economic uncertainty in the pandemic as the cause for angst

Dry Lake wildfire now classified as held

Wildfire was burning out of control north of Princeton for three days

Health Canada recalling more than 50 hand sanitizers in evolving list

Organization says to stop using products listed, and to consult a health-care professional

Most Read