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

Phyllis Stenson, a mainstay of the local arts scene and the Harrison Festival of the Arts, passed away earlier this month. Stenson was crucial in setting up the foundation for relationships, funding and more that continue even now to echo well past her retirement in 2013. (Contributed Photo/Harrison Festival Society)
Harrison Festival, Fraser Valley arts icon Phyllis Stenson mourned

Stenson passed away in late November, leaving lasting legacy of passion for the arts behind

Construction is expected to start in March of 2021 on 23 new rental homes funded by the provincial government’s Community Housing Fund. (Metro Creative photo)
Province announces rental home project in Chilliwack paid for by Community Housing Fund

Twenty three homes for Indigenous families are planned in partnership with Tzeachten First Nation

Canadian Red Cross staff engaged in a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and social distancing training exercise. (Luc Alary / Canadian Red Cross)
Red Cross canvassers following PHO guidelines while going door-to-door

Canvassers using safety protocols including masks and distancing to continue organization’s efforts

Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl, pictured here in 2017, has harsh words about the federal government’s Fall Economic Statement. (Black Press file)
Chilliwack MP Mark Strahl says Liberal government is leaving millions of Canadians behind

Strahl delivered a blistering critique of the federal government’s Fall Economic Statement

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation at the legislature, Nov. 30, 2020. (B.C. government)
Hockey team brought COVID-19 back from Alberta, B.C. doctor says

Dr. Bonnie Henry pleads for out-of-province travel to stop

B.C. Premier John Horgan on a conference call with religious leaders from his B.C. legislature office, Nov. 18, 2020, informing them in-person church services are off until further notice. (B.C. government)
B.C. tourism relief coming soon, Premier John Horgan says

Industry leaders to report on their urgent needs next week

An RCMP cruiser looks on as a military search and rescue helicopter winds down near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
B.C. Mountie, suspect airlifted by Canadian Armed Forces from ravine after foot chase

Military aircraft were dispatched from Comox, B.C., say RCMP

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

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

Photo by Dale Klippenstein
Suspect tries to thwart police in Abbotsford with false 911 call about men with guns

Man twice sped away from officers and then tried to throw them off his trail

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

Most Read