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Indigenous Affairs

First Nations Are Faring Well in Pandemic, but Fear BC’s Latest Moves

Decision to expand travel made without consultation and creating new risks for Indigenous communities, leaders say.

Moira Wyton 29 Jun 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Swift and decisive action by First Nations leaders helped communities avoid worst-case pandemic scenarios and fare better than the general B.C. population, but the risk is not over as B.C. lifts travel restrictions.

There were 86 positive test cases of COVID-19 among status First Nations people in B.C., half of which were among those living on or near reserves, First Nations Health Authority acting chief medical officer Dr. Shannon McDonald said Friday. Only three cases remain active.

Four First Nations people were among the 174 people who have died due to COVID-19.

“The worst, which many anticipated and feared, did not happen,” said McDonald. “The sacrifices made, some of them very difficult and painful, have paid off.”

There was deep concern among First Nations communities, particularly those in rural and remote locations, that an outbreak could push limited health-care resources to the brink and harm Elders, threatening communities’ languages and collective memories.

Leaders acted quickly, with many limiting travel in and out of communities, banning tourism and screening essential service providers and workers.

In an earlier interview with The Tyee, Heiltsuk Tribal Council Chief Marilyn Slett said First Nations understood the serious risks and knew they couldn’t depend on other governments for safety measures.

“Pandemics have hit our community hard, and with a modern-day government not working with communities to keep our communities safe when we repeatedly express the danger... I can’t believe it sometimes,” she said.

“We cannot afford to wait for something to happen before we start working together to protect our communities, because that is too late,” said Slett.

McDonald said decisions to put even important cultural gatherings on hold played a large role in limiting the virus’s spread, and noted some communities even went into full lockdown.

She stressed that this isn’t the time for communities to lower their guards as the province moves into the third phase of reopening, which includes expanded travel around B.C.

“Even as the province transitions and begins to reopen to allow the gradual opening of schools and business and travel, First Nations continued to express concern about having non-residents on their territories and potentially bringing the infection to their communities,” said McDonald.

“But we will continue to work with them to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

But several First Nations leaders have said the move to open the province was made without their input and puts their communities at risk, the CBC reported.

“It’s a slap in the face," Tsilhqot’in National Government Chair Joe Alphonse told the CBC.

On Twitter, Judith Sayers (Kekinusuqs), president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, criticized Premier John Horgan’s response when he said: “I can’t make everybody happy every day.”

“It isn’t about making people happy, it is about doing his legal duty,” Sayers wrote. “Living up to UNDRIP and respecting us on a Nation-to-Nation basis.”

Horgan “cannot suspend these things [because] we are in a state of emergency or he makes economics more important than Indigenous people’s #righttolife.”

This is not the first time First Nations leaders have said they were left hanging by the province when they sought additional measures to protect their communities.

The Tyee previously reported that it took over a month for the province to respond to an open letter from a coalition of northern and coastal First Nations and municipalities asking for support to prevent travel to their communities earlier in the spring.

McDonald said she is absolutely concerned about the reopening of travel but that communities have the right to not open themselves to visitors.

“The decision to go to phase three is a political one,” said McDonald. “The decisions are made at other tables.”

She said the success First Nations communities have had so far is heartening.

“Remember that our First Nations history has shown us how resilient we are,” said McDonald.

“First Nations have always adapted well in the face of adversity, change and even tragedy… I know we can get through this by supporting each other, by holding each other up, and by doing it with kindness.”  [Tyee]

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