[Editor’s note: This article is part of a Tyee partnership with Victoria-based Hakai Magazine, which will be publishing stories about COVID-19 in these pages during the pandemic.]
When Vern Brown and his partner Santana Edgar welcome a new baby girl into these novel times in the next few weeks, one worry is when they’ll be able to get home to share their joy with family and friends.
Brown, 34, and Edgar, 30, are comfortably battened down in the Black Rooster Inn in Prince Rupert, on British Columbia’s north coast, after doing what so many expectant young First Nations families are forced to do: they left their isolated home fully a month before Santana’s due date, for the security of a larger centre with a fully equipped hospital in plenty of time for when their baby arrives.
With a due date of April 22, the couple boarded the Northern Expedition ferry from Klemtu, a small village (pop. 319) on British Columbia’s central coast, on March 22, for a 12-hour overnight journey north. “We’re just praying for a healthy baby and to be able to get her home as soon as possible.”
Brown works in the stewardship department of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais First Nation in Klemtu as a field technician, creek walker, and all-round natural resources expert. Kitasoo/Xai’Xais territory is in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, and Klemtu is a popular jumping off point for tours that offer the chance to glimpse a rare white Spirit Bear.
Except not this year.
Klemtu, as with many other First Nations communities in British Columbia, and indeed across Canada, is now closed to outside visitors due to the risk of contagion from the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Brown said he is delighted with how fast his band leadership acted. “They’ve made some really good moves. I’m glad of their urgency … that the central coast is in lockdown.”
By comparison, he said, Prince Rupert seemed “laid back” when he and Santana arrived, people moving around freely, “and that’s really scary to me.” Brown admitted that with the advent of a baby, “everything’s really heightened for me.”
Prince Rupert is itself a transit point for tourists headed to Haida Gwaii, an eight-hour ferry sailing to the west. Some travellers with bookings to Skidegate chose not to travel the weekend of March 21-22 in light of a directive from the Haida Nation that the archipelago was off-limits to tourists. Others insisted on boarding the ferry in Prince Rupert, but the reception they got on arrival on the islands was hostile.
They were “immediately turned around and sent home,” said Gudee Gud Dlaay.ya Vince Collison who, days later, was still angry that people even made the journey. “Tourists for some odd reason thought they could hang out here.”
“These people are like infested blankets to me,” he said in an interview, hearkening back to the darkest time in the Haida’s, and indeed all coastal First Nations’, long history: a smallpox epidemic in the 1860s that killed tens of thousands of Indigenous people in what some historians, and many First Nations people, believe was a conscious attempt to depopulate the young colony.
Collison, who in summer works as a Guardian Watchman in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and otherwise works on repatriating Haida ancestral remains from museum collections around the world, admits his strong views sparked accusations that he was being racist.
He is unrepentant. “My father, he’s 80-plus [years old], and has respiratory issues. I am going to fight tooth and nail for him. I’m not going to allow a stupid visitor to endanger my family, my grandkids, my nieces and nephews.”
The danger in all communities is, obviously, one of exposure. The more physical distance the better, but that can be difficult to maintain in small communities that are often overcrowded due to chronic housing shortages. That problem is compounded by the fact that community health infrastructure — small hospitals, even smaller clinics — can be quickly overwhelmed.
Dr. Evan Adams, chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), said it is fair to assume, if not presume, that Indigenous communities’ “susceptibility to COVID-19 will be higher than in the general population” because Indigenous peoples already suffer poor outcomes in a range of health factors, including communicable diseases.
On Haida Gwaii, Collison said, there are just two ventilators for a population of around 5,000 full-time residents — one in Masset and one in Queen Charlotte City. Collison was as vocal as he was in part out of frustration that the political leadership on Haida Gwaii didn’t act more quickly to turn people away. By midweek, he was reassured when a state of emergency was declared by all levels of government on the islands. (That, and other local declarations were suspended by the province on March 26. The government said it was seeking to avoid “patchwork” approaches to emergency measures. Some local leaders vowed to continue with their own plans regardless.)
Council of the Haida Nation president Gaagwiis Jason Alsop said the decision to declare a state of emergency is “critical to the public health of all island citizens.”
“It is based on advice from local health professionals and will limit the risks that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to our island communities,” Alsop said. “There are no confirmed cases on Haida Gwaii at this time and we are doing all that we can to ensure the ongoing safety of our communities.”
According to the North Coast Regional District (NCRD), a state of emergency means “travel to and from communities within the NCRD will be controlled and limited to essential services only.”
Back on the central coast, in Bella Bella, where the year-round population numbers around 1,300 people, a directive to cease travel in and out of the community came on the cusp of a seasonal swell in band members due to it coinciding with the annual herring spawn — a key event on the Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) First Nation calendar. (The Central Coast Regional District also issued a COVID-19 emergency travel restriction order.)
In view of the pandemic, “it was unanimous to cancel the commercial fishery” eight days ago — just as the herring spawn began — said Dúqva̓ísla William Housty, a natural resources manager with the nation. “Looks like it could be a good rebuilding year for herring stocks.”
Housty said a few families were conducting FSC herring roe fisheries — FSC meaning for food, social, and ceremonial uses. The roe that was harvested, a fraction of what would be hauled ashore in a commercial fishery, “goes pretty far beyond our families” to other families in Bella Bella, with maybe a trickle of product going to Kitamaat in barter for eulachon grease from up that way.
Otherwise, Housty said, government buildings were shuttered and folks in Bella Bella were “staying home, working in their yards … it’s a blessing right now to be here and have less exposure to people coming in.”
On the morning of Tuesday, March 17, a half-dozen or so members of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation (TFN) on the west coast of Vancouver Island assembled at Sutton Pass, the high point of Highway 4 as it wends its way to Ucluelet and Tofino from the east side of the island.
“We are stopping cars to stop COVID-19 from reaching the coast,” TFN hereditary chief and emergency preparedness coordinator Simon Tom told the Westerly News.
“Traffic stopped. A lot of people were getting out and screaming at us. They were saying this is our land, not yours. We belong here more than you and a lot of young people started to jump out of their cars telling us this is not right, and we don’t have a right to this.” “As much as we don’t want to do this, we need to cap the pandemic … We are doing this to protect all Tofino community and our residents. Not just our tribe, but the whole community. It’s safety precautions.” Some drivers reportedly turned around, although none were blocked from finishing their journeys.
If the Tla-o-qui-aht wanted to make a point, they sure succeeded. And it wasn’t just First Nations making that point. At a popular surf beach near Tofino, someone had posted a notice saying: “Visiting From Out of Town?! It’s time to head home. You are in a small town with one hospital, one clinic + one grocery for everyone to share. You are overburdening a struggling system. Thanks!”
Canada’s iconic and popular west coast surf towns, gearing up for another madhouse summer, took a page from the First Nations’ playbook with Tofino, and then Ucluelet, asking visitors to stay away.
“For now, please enjoy Tofino vicariously through images and your memories of past visits,” said Tofino mayor Josie Osborne. “Make plans to visit us again when our community is ready to host you and give you an incredible experience. This recommendation is temporary only — just as the COVID-19 pandemic is — and we look forward to welcoming everyone back again soon.”
All three Nuu-chah-nulth Nations in Clayoquot Sound — the Tla-o-qui-aht, the Ahousaht, and the Hesquiaht — have declared their communities off-limits to outsiders.
Lynn Edwin “Eddy” Frank and his wife Grace sat in their family van a few days ago wearing masks and gloves, parked at the entrance to the Ty-Histanis reserve behind a barrier that said, “Residents Only No Visitors.” The only road to Tofino runs past Long Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which is also home to the Tla-o-qui-aht’s Esowista/Ty-Histanis reserve.
The Franks had been hired to keep visitors out and to discourage band members from leaving.
“We did our best. People were starting to listen,” Eddy Frank said.
But a week ago, the couple were confined to their two-bedroom apartment in an elders’ building on the reserve. They’d been ordered to self-isolate after learning that a visitor to their home had been in a meeting with someone who later reported falling ill.
“I was fit to be tied, so angry, but what can we do but ride it out?” Frank said. He quickly came to realize it was a “blessing … for the safety of my family it’s best to just do that.” Frank, 68, who is from Ahousaht but whose wife is Tla-o-qui-aht, supports closing the communities to outsiders, but was unimpressed that so many community members themselves were going to Tofino or otherwise not self-isolating in the village.
“First Nations demand the best for everybody but are hypocrites for not applying the rules to themselves,” he said.
Dr. Evan Adams, of the FNHA, said that isolation has its own hazards. “I think this lockdown idea can be triggering for people. It’s completely understandable, it’s probably within their rights and title” to exclude outsiders from First Nation communities.
Adams, who is himself First Nations (from Tla’amin [Sliammon] First Nation near Powell River) sympathizes with peoples’ need to be socially active. While there’s an understandable focus on physical safety, Adams said, “people are upset, so there’s a mental health issue. We don’t want people to stay home,” if they can find ways to get out and about to exercise or find other ways to do things that give them pleasure.
In Ahousaht, home to about 1,000 people, one thing some people are doing to stay active is fishing. “Bottom fish, salmon, clams, oysters,” said Curtis Dick, one of five emergency coordinators working to keep the community safe. Other band members were preparing to hunt ducks.
In Klemtu, before he and Santana sailed to Prince Rupert, Vern Brown had been out on the land, gathering traditional medicines from the territory. “It’s very uplifting to our communities to have our medicines close to hand,” Brown said.
And, he said, to anticipate what’s coming next: “herring, seaweed, sockeye, and everything else that rolls through after that.” As the isolation fades, “it’s going to be a whole family thing, families living together, a real food, social, and ceremonial thing.”
Brown, like Vince Collison on Haida Gwaii and William Housty in Bella Bella, talks openly about the fear of another epidemic hitting their shores. “We see it coming across the way, and that’s why we’re taking action,” Brown said.
That’s why they are asserting their rights to close their communities, and to gather their own medicines and their own food after a long, cold winter.
“We’re lucky to have that cycle of life that starts now,” Brown said. A cycle of life that will continue, someday soon, with the birth of their new baby girl. Then they just need to get her home.