The Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) hosted a “United Coast” virtual town hall on May 3, with Haida Nation President Gaagwiis Jason Alsop moderating discussion about continuing COVID-19 travel restrictions on Haida Gwaii as well as on the north and central coasts.
The guests who participated in the town hall were Central Coast Regional District Chair Samuel Schooner, Nuxalk First Nation Chief Wally Webber, Heiltsuk Nation Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett, Gitxaala Nation Chief Councillor Linda Innes, Masset Mayor and North Coast Regional District Chair Barry Pages, Village of Queen Charlotte Mayor Kris Olsen, and Lax Kw’alaams Mayor Garry Reece.
After Alsop opened the round table discussion with a prayer, each Indigenous and municipal leader was invited to talk about the COVID-19 response in their communities.
The leaders all stressed the importance of preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, especially considering the need to protect local elders.
“We all share a common history here in B.C. and in Canada with previous epidemics and pandemics and diseases, like smallpox, influenza, and others from the past,” Alsop said.
“We fear a step back into that if COVID-19 would come into our nations and our communities, and cause loss of our knowledge keepers and our language speakers.”
Schooner was the first of many to express disappointment with the decision made by the provincial government to add hunting and fishing to the list of essential services.
Webber also said the Nuxalk First Nation was concerned about the opening of fisheries, something it had expressed in letters to Fisheries and Oceans Canada as well as the area commercial fishery.
In the meantime, he said the Nuxalk First Nation had set up checkpoints, including one at the Bella Coola ferry terminal, asking people to turn around if they are a non-essential visitor.
Slett said the Heiltsuk Nation issued a ban on non-essential travel to their territory, including Bella Bella, on March 26, a “complete lockdown” went into effect in the community on April 26 until May 11, and may be extended as needed, and checkpoints had also been set up at entrances to their communities, such as near the marinas and ferries.
She also referenced past epidemics, but made the distinction that we have “information at our fingertips” during COVID-19.
“We’ve really been making sure that we’re using all of that information,” she said, adding that she thought the province could do more to inform communities about where there are confirmed cases.
To date, Northern Health has maintained that it is not able to speak to individual cases unless there is a public health reason such as concern for broader public exposure.
Innes said the governing council of the Gitxaala Nation at Kitkatla had also initiated travel bans on March 26, and urged the government to reconsider the addition of hunting and fishing to the list of essential services.
“People should not be travelling beyond their local area to engage in these activities,” she said. “If you need to hunt and fish, you need to do that in your own local territory.”
Reece said Lax Kw’alaams was in lockdown, and spoke more about the April 30 press release wherein he was quoted as saying they were “preparing to create a checkpoint to monitor and enact travel restrictions” on reserve lands that cross Highway 16 between Terrace and Prince Rupert.
He said the Transportation Ministry’s Skeena District Manager, Dan Baker, emailed him asking to be informed if they are going to put up a blockade on the highway.
He also said they are hoping to meet with Premier John Horgan and will continue to prepare to put up the blockade in the meantime.
Pages said he had heard essential workers arriving in Masset were being harassed “because in a small community everybody knows who lives in the community,” and reminded residents to be respectful.
“I think the community really needs to recognize that yes, there may be some new faces in the community, but they’re here for a reason,” he said. “They’re here to work on protecting our most vulnerable in our community and we really need to respect that.”
Alsop said the CHN has reached out to local sport fishing lodges to find out their plans for the season and is looking to use Gwaii Trust funding to support local food projects.
“How do we carry this momentum for Haida Gwaii — and I’m sure other communities are the same — to continue to improve our food security to be able to look after ourselves in times of emergency?” he asked, adding that COVID-19 has also shown how dependant Haida Gwaii is on off-island communities to complete essential work.
“There’s a great opportunity for us to put in the training and the education to cut down some of that leakage from our communities — those contracts and those positions — and train our own people to fill those positions.”
Alsop concluded the virtual town hall by reminding residents not to share drinks, gather for parties or otherwise ease up on following measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“That may happen outside of here. You may feel like [the virus is] not here, everything is OK, but we need to stay diligent … and hold each other accountable in a good way,” he said.
“Please continue to be kind and find good ways to share the message.”
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