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Province didn't consult on travel, leaving First Nations at risk, say leaders

Last Updated Jun 25, 2020 at 9:24 am PDT

Three First Nations say they won't welcome visitors just yet, despite the province giving non-essential travel the OK as part of Phase 3 of its Restart Plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Facebook/Heiltsuk Tribal Council)
Summary

Three First Nations say visitors aren't welcome to their communities, even as B.C. allows non-essential travel

The province announced travel within the province is encouraged through Phase 3 of its Restart Plan in response to COVID

The Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Tsilhqot'in nations say the provincial government didn’t consult them

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – A group of First Nations will be restricting visitors in their territories, despite domestic travel within B.C. being given the green light by the province.

The Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Tsilhqot’in nations say the provincial government didn’t consult them before throwing the doors open to non-essential travel.

Their priority, they say, is protecting elders and Indigenous leaders say basic safety measures are not yet in place to be able to welcome travellers to their communities.

“This means we cannot make informed decisions about the level or type of emergency measures to enact, and so the safest approach becomes blanket travel bans,” says Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation.

Chief Joe Alphonse, Chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government, says he supports that position, adding access to the Tsilhqot’in communities is restricted “to varying degrees.”

“Our priority is to protect our elders and our people, and this work is made much more difficult by BC’s refusal to provide case information sharing, screening, rapid testing and culturally-safe contact tracing,” he says. Our nations will stand together to keep our people and communities safe.”

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Leaders are emphasizing that it’s “people before economics,” and that the Nations will do what it needs to do to uphold that value.

“The Premier cannot forget our free, prior and informed consent over our territories, and that we have not given our consent to open up the province,” says Judith Sayers, President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.

“John Horgan likes to contact us through press conferences as opposed to respectfully calling us up and talking to us,” she tells NEWS 1130. “As high government officials, we’ve had very regular contact with Minister Scott Fraser, but he hasn’t had the answers.”

In addition to screening of travellers and rapid testing, the leaders say other basic safety conditions that need to be met include COVID-19 information sharing, as well as culturally-safe contact tracing and screening travellers for illness.

Currently, Sayers says there are only two kits available for First Nations in B.C.

“We have been trying to find two kits per Nation, but they haven’t achieved that,” she explains, adding there are large territories where two kits wouldn’t suffice. “We’ve been trying to work on concepts of how we can get our nurses to go in, get the tests done, bring them back to centres where they can be tested quickly.”

Sayers adds, “We’ve been working on these things, but we’re not there.”

Tofino concerns Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president

Meanwhile, Nancy Cameron with Tourism Tofino, a tiny community that previously asked people to stay away and is on Nuu-chah-nulth territory, is now saying it’s safe to visit.

“Our staff and residents are making sure that safety is everyone’s top priority,” she says.

“Safety measures, coupled with an extra dose of patience like everywhere else – there will be some waiting in line. That will help everyone have a wonderful experience and Tofino is very well equipped to host people,” Cameron adds.

Sayers tells NEWS 1130 she worries about what potential consequences the District of Tofino’s reopening to visitors may have on her community.

When it comes to culturally-appropriate contact tracing, Sayers explains concerns surround a potential second wave.

“We really need to look at training more people on how to do that,” she says. “And we really want to ensure that they are people who work with our communities, understand our communities … just finding people that our elders and people are comfortable with. So we need to figure out what that looks like.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry has warned that communities will decide for themselves if travellers are welcome and says it’s important to call ahead and check.

Premier John Horgan announced on Wednesday that non-essential travel would be allowed as B.C. enters Phase 3 of its Restart Plan.

In fact, he’s encouraging it within B.C., and even said visitors from outside the province — within Canada — would also be welcome.

Horgan said that he and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry never restricted the mobility rights of Canadians, particularly with respect to people from the Yukon and Alberta. However, non-essential travel to and within B.C. was discouraged.

“Now that we’re moving into Phase 3, our message to them would be slightly amended to say, ‘Certainly, if you’re coming to British Columbia, be mindful of what British Columbians have done together to get us to a position where we can welcome people from other parts of the country,'” the premier said.

-With files from Marcella Bernardo and Marcus Fitzgerald