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Vancouver Island mayor rebukes 'vile,' racist response to COVID-19 cases in First Nation

Last Updated Jan 11, 2021 at 1:35 am PDT

(Courtesy Facebook/mayoralsiebring)

Al Siebring, Mayor of the District Municipality of North Cowichan, took to Facebook to censure people in the community

A local mayor is angry at the racism he's seen since a shelter-in-place order was issued for Cowichan Tribes reserves

NORTH COWICHAN (NEWS 1130) — A Vancouver Island Mayor is condemning the “vile” and “racist” response — both online and off — to COVID-19 cases among members of the Cowichan Tribes First Nation.

Al Siebring, mayor of the District Municipality of North Cowichan, took to Facebook to censure people in the community saying, “I’ve been extremely concerned with some of the posts I’ve been seeing in the past few days with respect to the COVID outbreak among the Cowichan Tribes community. Ok… I’m beyond ‘extremely concerned.’ I’m disappointed. And I’m pissed off.”

A shelter-in-place order was issued last Wednesday by Cowichan Tribes Chief and Council after 23 cases were identified. The nation has about 5,000 members, about half of whom live on reserve. By Sunday, 45 cases had been reported.

Siebring says the way some Indigenous people have been treated since the shelter in place order came into effect “is the very definition of racism.”

He tells NEWS 1130 that members of the Nation who work at a grocery store have been told to “stay home until this COVID thing is done.” Since he posted on Facebook, he has heard from someone who had their dentist appointment cancelled after they said they live on reserve.

Siebring says while businesses and service providers can deny access to someone who fails a health screening, basing that decision solely on the fact that someone lives on reserve is inexcusable.

“To ask, ‘Do you live on reserve?’ And then say, ‘Oh sorry we can’t help you. That’s just way beyond reasonable, that’s racist, that’s based on race.”

“A lot of it is fear-based, I get that, but that’s still no excuse for this kind of racially-based decision making and these racially-based comments, it’s just way off the mark.”

In his Facebook post Siebring points out that until Jan. 1 Cowichan Tribes — which is the largest First Nation band in British Columbia — had not reported a single case.

“For 10 months, COVID was present in the non-First Nations community. The first case among Cowichan Tribes wasn’t identified until New Year’s Day. But NOT ONCE during that 10 month period did we ever hear of Tribes members looking at every non-indigenous person with the assumption that they had COVID. We didn’t hear any calls for all white people to stay away from their jobs until the pandemic is over. I didn’t see a single social media post or news article where Cowichan Tribes members were complaining that it was ‘those white people’ who were spreading the virus all over the Island,” he writes.

“And yet, now that the numbers have changed, that’s the kind of rhetoric we’re starting to see. Folks, we are better than this. And it has to stop.”

As for why he posted to Facebook in the first place, he says he wanted to lead by example.

“Call this stuff out when you see it, whether you see it online or if you’re having conversations with somebody and it comes up — call it out for what it is,” he says.

“We need to be clear that that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior is not acceptable.”

First Nation being ‘punished’ for transparency

Another issue Siebring raises is that Cowichan Tribes can reveal the exact number of cases because it is information that is available to the First Nation’s leadership.

“I don’t see that as a mayor. I don’t know how many cases we have in North Cowichan but the First Nations Health Authority is open about the numbers,” he says.

“First Nations have the authority to do that, they’re being transparent and now they’re being essentially punished for that, their membership is. All of a sudden there’s this panic in community, and if you live on reserve they want to keep you at, five arms lengths away — again based on racial profiling. It’s not a large number of cases in the Cowichan Tribes but just the very fact that they can identify the number of cases and put in this shelter-in-place order, all of a sudden that’s created all these concerns.”

While the BC Centre for Disease Control has begun releasing more data about where new cases are being identified, Dr. Bonnie Henry has resisted calls for more granular geographic data out of a concern that people or communities will be stigmatized.

Siebring, however, says it’s possible stigma would be reduced if there was consistent, transparent data.

“I think we’d find that it’s present everywhere, so it would sort of level the playing field. What’s troubling about this is that the transparency among First Nations in reporting is not equal in other communities, and because of that they tend to be singled out,” he says.

“I think if we had more transparency across the board it would be less noticeable when Cowichan Tribes says we have 45 cases.”

With files from Liza Yuzda