Three First Nations are asking British Columbia’s information and privacy watchdog to force the province into divulging when COVID-19 cases pop up near their territories, arguing it would help them take extra measures to protect their vulnerable communities from the pandemic.
The mayor of Powell River, a five-hour and two-ferry trip northwest of Vancouver, is also demanding this up-to-date case data to strengthen his municipality’s response and to fight fear among residents as a nearby First Nations village battles a cluster of 28 people sick with the novel coronavirus.
B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer and its Minister of Health acknowledge the unique threat COVID-19 poses to First Nations communities, but have so far refused to release such information on the grounds that it could violate the privacy of patients and put some of them at risk of facing discrimination. (Saskatchewan’s Hutterites say they have been stigmatized after the province published more detailed information about outbreaks in their rural colonies.)
Individual First Nations have often been quick to announce outbreaks within their own communities, but it is difficult to find a clear picture of where COVID-19 has affected these communities across the province and among Indigenous people living outside of their hometowns.
A spokesperson with B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority, which delivers health care to Indigenous people across the province, told The Globe and Mail that preliminary data show they have recorded 286 cases among First Nations up to last Saturday. However, Indigenous Services Canada says on its website there were 103 such cases in B.C. as of Monday.
B.C. has released a map of how many residents have tested positive in each of the province’s more than 80 local health areas, but this data set is only updated monthly and each designated zone can cover several communities and wide swaths of territory in more rural regions.
Speaking at an unrelated news conference Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged the complaints of First Nations and praised their response to the pandemic so far, but did not commit to releasing any more data.
Hours earlier, the Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tsilhqot’in governments filed a formal complaint with the provincial Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, alleging B.C.'s refusal to share data violates the provincial privacy law that states a minister must disclose any information about a risk of significant harm to a certain group of people.
“If COVID-19 proximate case information does not represent information about a risk of significant harm to our communities, we don’t know what does,” Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, said in a news release. “The idea that we need to have an outbreak – as we have just had in our community – before B.C. will share information is reckless and colonial."
The coalition, which is supported by several other First Nations and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and the BC Civil Liberties Association, stated that Indigenous communities are keenly aware of the current pandemic’s devastating potential, given the way smallpox and the Spanish flu once decimated their communities and killed many elders.
Judith Sayers, president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said communities need such information to save lives, adding that she has witnessed cases spreading fast in several communities such as Haida Gwaii and Alert Bay.
“We’re supposed to be on a government-to-government level, and so we should be able to share them in that fashion. It’s just deplorable,” said Dr. Sayers, whose ancestral name is Kekinusuqs.
The Privacy Commissioner’s spokesperson said Tuesday he will make a decision soon on how to proceed with investigating the complaint.
Clint Williams, Hegus or Chief of the Tla’amin Nation, said his community of 700 residents began a lockdown last week after members began feeling sick following an outdoor funeral the weekend prior. The local health authority confirmed Monday that 28 people members of the Tla’amin Nation now have the virus, but Mr. Williams said they have no idea how many people in nearby Powell River are sick.
“We want to know what’s in the Powell River community at large because that’s our supply chain,” he said. “We’re not asking for names, we’re just asking numbers.”
Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa praised the Tla’amin Nation’s handling of the outbreak and said he wants such real-time information to also be shared with the local qathet Regional District, as well as his city.
“The information allows our emergency operating centre to have data and specific information to know whether or not this thing is spreading quickly or not spreading quickly, whether or not we need to up our enforcement and our messaging,” Mr. Formosa said Tuesday.
The lack of such data is causing residents to worry, he said. “We need to be making our public feel safe and that they are informed.”
Last week, a release from the centre said Tla’amin Nation members and other Indigenous people in the region were reporting being subjected to “racially motivated harassment” at work, running errands or while out in their communities. “This is causing additional stress, anxiety and fear,” the local manager of emergency services stated in the release.
Mr. Formosa said he has asked people to be respectful of others and treat everybody equally.
“The concerns that we have is that we don’t want to see people treating them differently, whereby they think that if they see First Nations in the community that maybe somehow they have COVID-19, and that they should not be here, and they should be in isolation in their reserve.”
Tla’amin’s Mr. Williams said his nation’s response is being complicated by the days-long wait to see who is infected. Results of testing done in his community last Thursday were only returned late Monday by the First Nations Health Authority and Vancouver Coastal Health, the body that oversees the Powell River region on the Sunshine Coast. (VCH’s current average turnaround time for testing is 37 hours, according to the province’s digital COVID-19 data dashboard.)
“We need to plan with accurate numbers and they just seem to be a little slow,” he said.
The First Nations Health Authority deferred to Vancouver Coastal health for comment Tuesday. A VCH spokesperson said the authority does not comment on specific cases, but it reports any new infections of Indigenous people to the FHNA, which then notifies the First Nations government overseeing the community that person is living in.
Public-health staff were on Tla’amin territory again Tuesday afternoon for a drive-through testing blitz, which could inform the nation’s decision whether to extend the lockdown past Thursday, Mr. Williams said.
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