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Protecting Indigenous communities during the pandemic

Carol Anne Hilton: BC First Nations are also taking action to halt the spread of COVID-19.
A totem pole in Tofino.

Indigenous people carry the blood memory of mass population decimation through the drastic decline of Indigenous peoples from smallpox, influenza, measles, and scarlet fever upon early contact. Without immunity to these early diseases introduced by the Europeans, Indigenous populations were severely decimated.

Today, as a business owner, I travel extensively. Watching the rapid unfoldment of COVID-19 has been a significant concern. Observing the public narrative from the early days back in January, to the real-time daily exponential increase of this virus here in BC now impacting every single one of our daily lives is a cause for concern in how First Nations communities are responding.

Systemic social and economic inequalities leaves Indigenous communities much more susceptible to the spread of this virus. Some of these aggravating factors include overcrowded housing, lack of clean water, and lack of access to local healthcare services due to remoteness.

Part of the national response included a commitment to deploy immediate assistance to Indigenous communities, including the supplies and resources needed to prepare for local COVID-19 outbreaks.

"Indigenous Services is here to help adapt and activate plans for your communities. No community will be left behind," said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller. The federal government has identified $305 million to address the immediate needs of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities which includes critical public education and messaging around the crisis, forming health plans, and accessing necessary medical supplies.

Here in BC, the First Nation Health Authority plays a central role in messaging around this health crisis for First Nation communities. Guided by action planning at the provincial and federal level, but focused on early response planning and the protection of Indigenous populations.

The BC First Nation Leadership Council is highlighting the systemic social and economic inequalities facing many Indigenous communities, aggravated by the lack of quick access to urgent care, leaving many communities at a higher risk should the virus spread uncontrollably. The Leadership Council urged the federal government to issue a national state of emergency to ensure an escalated response, along with clearer, stronger, and quicker measures to support vulnerable First Nation and Indigenous communities.

Many First Nations in BC have begun declaring their own state of emergency or implementing travel restrictions. For example, in the Tofino-Ucluelet region, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation members and members of the community briefly stopped all cars travelling the one road into the area.

“As much as we don’t want to do this, we need to cap this pandemic. We met about two or three times with chief and council and the message is clear: we need to be proactive, not reactive at this time,” said Tla-o-qui-aht hereditary chief and emergency preparedness coordinator Simon Tom.

Tom points out that this was done to protect all residents. Not just the Nations, but the whole larger regional community. An important consideration in this decision was the small size and response capacity of the hospital in Tofino to deal with the scale and intensity of the looming pandemic.

Other nations in the region include the Hesquiaht and Ahousaht Nations, who are also taking direct action in curbing the pandemic in the region and protecting vulnerable members.

Chief Joshua Charleson of the Hesquiaht Nation says  the community has heightened protection measures by limiting water taxi entrance to only three authorized water taxis, which will permit community members and supplies into Hot Springs Cove, which has less than a 100 residents.

In the neighbouring Ahousaht community, Ahousaht Tyee Ha’wilth Lewis George has noted that all beaches in the territory are being closely monitored, and that any visitors found there will be asked to leave immediately. Of particular note here is the role of the hereditary system in these nations in enacting these measures. The community is working to ensure that only those individuals that provide essential services, such as nurses, will be permitted to enter and leave the village to ensure greater protection for the community members.

In these unprecedented times, First Nation communities are doing what they can to slow this virus and its impact. In communities with disproportionate health issues, lower capacity for response, and less access to health services, First Nations are protecting their members through restricted access, or declaring their territories closed to visitors.

The time to act is now.

Carol Anne Hilton, MBA is the CEO and Founder of The Indigenomics Institute. Carol Anne is a recognized national Indigenous business leader and senior adviser with an international Masters Degree in Business Management (MBA) from the University of Hertfordshire, England. Carol Anne is of Nuu chah nulth descent from the Hesquiaht Nation on Vancouver Island.