VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Leaders and politicians on Vancouver Island have penned an open letter demanding an end to racism targeting members of First Nations where cases of COVID-19 have been identified.
“Racism against Indigenous peoples is showing it’s ugly face as the system responds to the health crisis in Indigenous communities as a result of the pandemic response,” the letter reads.
“In some communities, racist commentary and abuse has been directed at Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous peoples are being wrongly targeted as solely responsible for transmission of the disease.”
Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond recently concluded a review of anti-Indigenous racism in the province’s healthcare system, finding widespread discrimination and deeply entrenched prejudices.
She says the way members of the two First Nations on Vancouver Island have been treated, and the hateful comments that have been circulating rely on the same racist stereotypes and perpetuate the same prejudices she identified in her report.
“There’s been a lot of discussion in social media in particular where these racist views about Indigenous people come to the surface, which looks a lot like what I looked at in the healthcare system,” she explains.
“Things like Indigenous people are less deserving of health care, or Indigenous people are to blame for their condition because they’re in crowded housing, as if that’s within their control, or Indigenous people are less compliant and do not follow health orders. Those would be the top three big prejudices that drive the discrimination and racism that I’ve seen emerge very rapidly around the pandemic. That is extremely misinformed, those prejudices are completely inaccurate.”
Joint Open Letter: A United Call to Stop Racism Against Indigenous Peoples in the BC Healthcare System. @s_malcolmson @DougRoutley17 @paulmanly @cityofnanaimo @DocSaucier @telaxten @FNHC pic.twitter.com/95ZzsJ2KSx
— Snuneymuxw First Nation (@Snuneymuxw) January 15, 2021
Chiefs of both the Snuneymuxw First Nation and Cowichan Tribes have been providing consistent updates about the number of positive cases identified, and what measures are being taken to contain the coronavirus.
“They’re doing absolutely everything right. They were informing and trying to keep everyone safe. But absolutely, it appears for some people, they used that as a jumping-off point to target them and suggest that they spread disease,” Turpel-Lafond says.
“A lot of these comments and opinions that have been expressed have really had a tinge of racism to them, and a tinge of profiling, when in fact, this is an example of good governance. The disease doesn’t discriminate based on race, culture or location. They were monitoring it, they were acting on it and they were communicating with their members, and because they were so fulsome they got blowback. I can’t say enough about the integrity dedication and focus they’ve shown during a pandemic to try and keep everyone safe and work together. So, if anything we should really be commenting in public that this is the kind of leadership we need.”
She points out that Indigenous leaders have called for and practised transparency because it’s something they have been denied in the past.
“For First Nations communities not knowing or just trusting someone else to like take care of it without informing them it’s not acceptable,” she says.
“The last time they went through a pandemic they really didn’t have any services and support. Within our lifetime there was a segregated health care system, and very poor health care in the past. They’re trying very hard to make sure that they don’t have that, and that is important.”
Members of both First Nations have received vaccines, and Turpel-Lafond says the decision to prioritize these communities has also been met with racist backlash.
“Indigenous communities are as deserving as anyone, but also they have deep vulnerabilities, and we need to make sure things like vaccines get there especially because there’s a lot of multi-generational households,” she says.
“There’s elders. In some instances, those elders are cultural knowledge keepers, and they are one of the few bulwarks left to protect language and culture given all of the colonial experiences that communities have had with things like residential schools.”
The signatories to the open letter are asking all British Columbians to commit to being anti-racist.
“To end racism we have to name it and speak up and shut it down,” the letter says.
Turpel-Lafond agrees that action is required.
“We have to remove this racism from our system. It’s come to the forefront during the pandemic, we’ve named it, we’re understanding it, but we have to really work hard to end it. When we see it, we have to have a speak up culture that identifies it and calls for it to end,” she says.
“Apart from the hurtful words that we’ve seen that are racist, behind that there are sometimes actions taken. There will be bullying, there will be aggression towards First Nations kids or young people, attitudes that infiltrate schools and other public places. We have to just understand that sometimes these public comments or these social media comments are the tip of an iceberg.”
She says it’s particularly important for non-Indigenous people — both leaders and otherwise — to shut down or call out racism, adding she was encouraged to see Dr. Bonnie Henry speak out.
“It’s very important to place responsibility for racism where it belongs, which is not on the shoulders of Indigenous people, but on those who are espousing it, to identify it and to name it,” she says.
“We will have to do that, just not just on Vancouver Island, but all over British Columbia, and no doubt other parts of Canada as well.”