Marilyn Slett is chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. Dr. Judith Sayers is president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Chief Joe Alphonse is Tribal Chair of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government.
Earlier this month, thousands of cases of racism against Indigenous peoples in B.C. health care were made public. Among the repugnant and infuriating allegations: some emergency-room staff played a game to guess the blood-alcohol level of Indigenous patients. Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix have decried these actions, and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.‘s former representative for children and youth, is investigating the claims.
These allegations are unfortunately unsurprising. They are symptoms of a bigger problem: a system that incorporates racist and colonial values and assumptions into its operations, and governance, and risks Indigenous lives. Such is the nature of systemic racism.
But it’s not enough to litigate past injustice. As the province marches forward with its “Phase 3” reopening plans around the COVID-19 pandemic, without any true consultation or consent from Indigenous leaders, we must stop the injustices that are happening now, and prevent those yet to come.
British Columbia has received international plaudits for rapidly flattening the curve in the face of the first wave of COVID-19 – a commendable outcome. But what British Columbians don’t know is that Indigenous communities have suffered close calls and real tragedies all the same. The ‘Namgis tragically lost an elder and experienced a major outbreak in Alert Bay. Neighbouring nations were not notified and had no chance to take precautions. There have also been cases of infected individuals travelling through Indigenous territory without any heads-up to our governments.
Since the pandemic began, Indigenous leaders have exhorted government officials in vain to give us more information and resources to protect our communities. To date, our requests have been ignored.
So when Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry asks us to philosophically accept that “absolutely we are going to have more cases” as part of B.C.‘s “fine balance” in reopening, understand that it is Indigenous nations that are being asked to bear the brunt of that risk, because to date, we are still waiting for four basic safety measures.
We do not have an information-sharing agreement to ensure early reporting of suspected and confirmed cases in nearby regions to Indigenous governments; we do not have screening methods to ensure travellers seeking to enter Indigenous territory are not symptomatic or infected with the virus; there are no rapid-testing mechanisms available that can prioritize Indigenous and remote communities – in fact, there are currently just two rapid testing kits for all Indigenous communities in B.C. And finally, there has not yet been funding for culturally safe contact-tracing that can increase the likelihood of effective tracing in the event of an outbreak, and reduce the risk of racist interactions with the health care system of the sort the government has decried.
Failure to provide these measures, while moving full steam ahead to reopen the province, puts our people at risk. First Nations are among the most vulnerable populations in B.C., with the most to lose – the loss of an elder represents a loss of language, culture and history.
Additionally, we have not given our consent to open up our territories, let alone been consulted on the province’s plans to reopen. Some of our nations have relaxed our closings to allow for some travel and essential visitors, while some have remained closed owing to the risks assessed by leadership. For all of us, we value the livelihoods of our people and will act with their best interest in mind.
Although the B.C. government has committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recognizing our rights to self-determination, and being actively involved in developing health programs that affect us, the government’s words are hollow if it fails to root out the systemic racism, stereotypes and lack of respect for Indigenous peoples that result in the kind of risk calculation the government is now making – what Dr. Shannon McDonald, chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, recently called a “political decision,” made at other tables.
While many British Columbians take comfort from soothing mantras to “be kind, be calm and be safe,” B.C. First Nations communities are being put at risk by immovable bureaucrats and paternalistic policy makers. We see a government steadfastly administering health care policies that are developed without us, and we cannot assume they are not based on racist assumptions.
We firmly believe that during the first wave, Indigenous lives were put at risk. But like any crisis, COVID-19 represents a potential turning point and an opportunity for change.
To prepare for a second and potentially more dangerous wave, we have called on the B.C. government to meet with us immediately to begin implementing the four basic safety measures. In response, the Premier has said the province will be disclosing “more information” but he remains silent on the measures. He also said on Friday that implementing UNDRIP means “enormous strides forward for genuine reconciliation,” but that there will be days when First Nations disagree about the adequacy of consultation or disclosure, and that’s “just the way it’s gonna go.” This dismissive rhetoric is in sharp contrast to Dr. Henry and Dr. McDonald’s insistence that the province supports First Nations who are not ready to receive visitors, and whose paramount focus is on protecting their communities, especially their elders.
We continue to call on the B.C. government to consult and meet with us, on a nation-to-nation basis, to begin implementing the four safety measures on an urgent basis, and to discuss the underlying issue of systemic racism, which appears to be driving the status quo of putting Indigenous lives at risk. If we don’t learn from lessons of the past, the history and devastation of past pandemics will only repeat themselves.
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