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)

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

(CIty of Kelowna)
Kelowna council shoots down Upper Mission subdivision after 8 years of planning

Thomson Flats would have introduced 680 new homes near Kelowna’s southern boundary

Ice rescue on Shannon Lake. Phil McLachlan, Kelowna Capital News.
‘Ice season is over’; West Kelowna crews rescue man from icy lake

A man in his 60’s was pulled from the waters of Shannon Lake after falling through

HOPE Okanagan’s Stay at Home Gala will raise funds to help serve Kelowna and Vernon’s vulnerable. (HOPE Okanagan)
Non-profit hosts virtual gala to support Okanagan’s vulnerable

HOPE Okanagan wants to raise awareness and support for those struggling in the streets

Summerhill Pyramid Winery. (Contributed)
Fear of ‘hotel in a vineyard’ prompts Kelowna council to defer culinary school decision

City council needs assurance the educational facility proposed at Summerhill Winery will be used as stated

An individual experiencing homelessness stands on Leon Avenue in downtown Kelowna after receiving supplies from the Gospel Mission outreach team. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
New City of Kelowna shelter strategy in the works

The community shelter plan will be based on four core principles: choice, healing, community and safety

Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about phase two in B.C.’s COVID-19 immunization plan as Premier John Horgan and Minister Arian Dix look on during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. reports 438 new COVID cases, 2 deaths

Long-term care outbreaks are decreasing

Canadian Mental Health Association staff and volunteers experienced increased Crisis Line calls with COVID-related concerns. (CMHA photo)
North Okanagan MP pushes for national suicide hotline

Mel Arnold seeks support from North Okanagan-Shuswap municipalities for 988 hotline

Okanagan College
Okanagan College holds March Madness fundraiser

Money from the fundraiser will go to support the Okanagan College Foundation

Penticton city council has unanimously shot down an application from BC Housing to keep a shelter for people experiencing homelessness open for an additional year. (Jesse Day - Western News)
Penticton council denies extension of cold weather shelter

The Victory Church shelter will now be told to cease operations April 1

(Black Press file photo)
Penticton man arrested while sleeping in stolen vehicle, again

30-year-old Penticton resident Shane Pope is well-known to police

A town was constructed on the side of a mountain top in Hedley to extract 7.1 tonnes of gold. (Mascotmine.com photo)
Hedley’s Mascot Mine gets $800,000 lift from COVID relief program

Grant will enable the historic mine to open again for tourists

The machines are akin to ATMs and allow drug users at risk of overdose to get hydromorphone pills dispensed to them after their palm has been scanned to identify its unique vein pattern. (CANADIAN PRESS)
Feds dole out $3.5M for ‘vending machines’ to dispense safer opioids in B.C.

Vancouver and Victoria both have a MySafe machine to help reduce overdoses

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Kelowna’s lakefront visitor centre is one of 130 around the province. Tourism businesses have been hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions on travel. (Destination B.C.)
Tourism, small business getting COVID-19 help, B.C. minister says

$300M grant program has delivered $50 million so far

Most Read