First Nations and municipalities along British Columbia’s north and central coasts – home to popular destinations including Haida Gwaii – have asked the province and federal authorities to crack down on non-essential travel to the region, saying they don’t have the capacity to deal with an influx of people who may become ill with COVID-19.
More stringent restrictions – including a travel ban on anyone other than residents and essential workers – is essential to protect local residents, including Indigenous elders who are among the last fluent speakers of the Haida language, Haida Nation president Jason Alsop says.
“We are worried about community spread that would reach our elders – our elders are some of our fluent language speakers, there’s only a few fluent speakers left … they are the ones that current and future generations learn from,” Mr. Alsop said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Skidegate.
The request for a ban was made in an April 6 letter to federal and B.C. government representatives. B.C.'s Joint Information Centre said Thursday in a statement it was working on developing guidance for First Nations to work with government agencies and with the RCMP to apply travel restrictions into their communities.
That guidance would be developed on a case-by-case basis, while ensuring that essential goods and workers can still get to coastal communities, the statement said.
The statement also noted measures already in effect, including travel-advisory signs at the Prince Rupert ferry terminal advising only essential travel to Haida Gwaii and screening of passengers for COVID-19.
But First Nations in the letter called for “immediate emergency measures” and said people were already coming to the region for fishing, hunting and other leisure activities, despite travel advisories.
Mr. Alsop said he would like to see measures such as fines for people who disregard advice to avoid non-essential travel, saying Haida members have observed licence plates from Arizona, Florida and Alberta in recent days in and around Skidegate.
In its response, the Joint Information Centre noted that First Nations communities have the authority to declare states of emergency and take measures to protect the citizens of their own communities.
But Mr. Alsop said that could prompt confrontations if people insist they are allowed to move freely under provincial and federal laws.
“That leaves it up to us as Indigenous people to enforce those orders – and that means we have to put our people on the front lines,” he said.
Haida Gwaii is a group of islands off B.C.'s west coast and is home to Gwaii Haanas National Park, which is closed along with other Parks Canada sites.
Transport Canada said it has already taken steps to reduce risks and would follow the advice of public health authorities for any additional measures.
“As this situation is constantly evolving, we will not hesitate to take further action based on the advice of medical health professionals to protect the health and safety of Indigenous peoples and Canadians,” Simon Rivet, a spokesman with Transport Canada, said Thursday in an e-mail.
Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, also signed the letter.
Typically, April marks the early start of a tourist season, during which as many as 400 boats – including yachts, smaller sail boats and vessels from fishing lodges – come through waters near Bella Bella, Ms. Slett said.
On April 5, Transport Canada announced new measures that prohibit all commercial marine vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers from engaging in non-essential activities, such as tourism and recreation.
Those measures don’t go far enough, because they don’t include boats that may carry fewer than 12 passengers but may still pose a risk to local residents, Ms. Slett said.
“Definitely, the current measures aren’t enough to protect our communities, so we would certainly like to work together with B.C. and Canada to provide those measures that we called for in our collective letter,” Ms. Slett said.
Most boat traffic in the region will not be included under that new federal guideline, Ms. Slett said.
“That’s really distressing, because we have a small community, limited resources for health care, and our experience with pandemics as Indigenous people is devastating,” she said.