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Guests of the Queen Charlotte Lodge fish for Halibut during a fishing trip in the Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C., in the summer of 2003.

Chris Bolin © 2003/The Globe and Mail

Two Haida Gwaii fishing resorts say next season – and possibly their entire businesses – are in jeopardy after British Columbia banned vacations to the rugged archipelago in response to a community outbreak of COVID-19 on the islands.

For three weeks in July, the luxury resorts had ignored the Haida Nation’s ban on tourism, enacted in late March. The two resorts had discussions with the Haida Nation prior to opening, but ultimately decided their operations posed no threat to locals as they were respecting provincial health and workplace guidelines and flying workers and guests in and out of their remote sites.

But Queen Charlotte Lodge and the West Coast Fishing Club closed their facilities and shipped out the last tranche of mainland guests immediately after the provincial government prohibited non-essential travel to Haida Gwaii on July 30 in response to the community outbreak. (The latest update from the Haida Nation on Aug. 8 confirmed there have been 26 cases, with five active.)

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Haida Gwaii lodge owner criticizes B.C. decision to restrict access for non-residents

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Brian Legge, president and co-owner of the West Coast Fishing Club, said this summer only 36 of the regular cohort of 115 employees were hired and a fraction of the normal flow of guests entered the lodge on Langara Island at the northern tip of Haida Gwaii. Almost two-thirds of next season’s bookings are already full – many taken by people unable to fish this year, he said.

But his business now faces an existential threat and he says he will decide by next spring whether to try to open next summer to guests who have taken a yet-to-be-developed vaccine.

“You’d have to start letting everybody go and then build back up again from scratch? That would be ridiculous,” he said. “We have millions of dollars invested into those properties and with this [pandemic] going on those properties are basically worthless.

“I can’t see any other viable commercial operation taking place at Langara Island that would be remotely successful.”

Brian Clive, vice-president of sales and corporate relations at the Queen Charlotte Lodge, said he has no idea when B.C. will stop renewing the provincial state of emergency, under which tourism to the islands remains banned. Mr. Clive said his company will decide next February whether to begin the complicated process of opening again next summer and, if it doesn’t reopen in 2021, he doubts the business could survive given guests that have deferred their trips this year are unlikely to do so again.

“As long as that is in place there is no non-essential travel to Haida Gwaii,” Mr. Clive said. “It essentially moved the Council of Haida Nations to a position that they contended was always theirs to have, which is: Haida law in Haida Gwaii.”

His lodge welcomed roughly 420 guests this summer, a fraction of the 3,100 that usually come during a season that ends Labour Day weekend. The wealthy guests of the Queen Charlotte Lodge drew the ire of local Indigenous people fishing and harvesting shellfish in the same waters.

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No one from the Haida Nation responded to requests for comment from The Globe and Mail. Adeana Young, a spokesperson for the group of Indigenous locals camping out near the Queen Charlotte Lodge to conduct their traditional harvest of the ocean, said the province stepping up to ban the tourists points to B.C.‘s honouring of a law passed last year respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She said the situation on the water was very intense this summer as Haida people restocking their family’s winter supply of fish navigated around boats carrying tourists from the mainland paying thousands of dollars for the experience.

First Nations in several parts of B.C. have expressed concern about the province easing health restrictions aimed at containing the virus, but Premier John Horgan has reminded travellers that they should avoid communities not yet prepared to welcome tourists. A Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation spokesperson said B.C. is in talks with many First Nations to find solutions to better managing the pandemic in their communities.

Other tourism operators on the islands agreed to obey the Haida Nation ban and did not open this summer, a show of respect that experts say should be the norm for businesses operating on unceded lands of B.C.‘s First Nations amid a global pandemic.

Kelly Whitney-Gould, a lecturer at Royal Roads University and University of Northern B.C. who lives on Haida Gwaii, said tourism businesses will have to work more closely with the communities near their amenities as the virus remains active.

Judith Sayers, president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and adjunct professor of business and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, said First Nations communities across the province have set up checkpoints to educate tourists entering their territory about the risks they pose to locals, with mixed results. She said she is part of a group of leaders still pressing Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry’s agency to divulge when an infection is confirmed of someone near a First Nations community, so that protections can be increased.

Having been previously decimated by smallpox, many First Nations are keenly aware of a pandemic’s devastating potential, said Dr. Sayers, whose ancestral name is Kekinusuqs. COVID-19 is especially worrisome for First Nations given the toll it has taken on older patients, who are often invaluable resources to their communities, she added.

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“Our most vulnerable people are normally our most knowledgeable: They hold our histories, our protocols, our family lines, our traditional ecological knowledge.”

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