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

Screen Arts bringing films back to Vernon

Towne Theatre expected to show Okanagan Screen Arts Society films in September

Tronson Road in Vernon closed next week

A portion of the road will be closed to traffic while crews upgrade water service utilities

Vernon Performing Arts Centre goes ahead with bursary program amid COVID-19

Vernon-area students urged to apply for three $1,000 bursaries to pursue education in performing arts

Vernon business restores faith in humanity for houseboat fire victims

Community kindness leaves out-of-province father in tears of appreciation

371 British Columbians battling COVID-19, health officials confirm

Thursday (Aug. 6) saw a second straight day of nearly 50 new confirmed cases

Mitchell’s Musings: Hockey’s comeback begins in earnest in August

Sports is back. Well, at least sports in a bubble is back.… Continue reading

COLUMN: Listen to those who know about COVID-19

Accurate information is essential when understanding the pandemic

Penticton man wakes to wildfire, forced to evacuate

A wildfire sparked off the side of Highway 97 near Penticton on Thursday

Anti-gang cops probe Kelowna’s street-level drug trade over B.C. Day long weekend

CFSEU’s Gang Enforcement Team was deployed to Kelowna last weekend

Answers to 5 common questions facing families for the COVID-19 school year

COVID-19 protocols are likely to vary even more at the school board level, and even and school-to-school.

Man allegedly wielding knife at Kelowna Superstore arrested

The 29-year-old Kelowna man has been released on strict conditions for a future court date

Visitors and non-residents entering closed remote B.C. First Nation’s territories

With limited resources, they say they don’t have any authority or power to enforce the closures

UBC loses appeal on Fisheries Act convictions

BC Supreme Court upholds order to pay $1.55-million fine

Most Read