Roxanne Robinson is Chief Councillor of Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation.
Danielle Shaw is Chief Councillor of Wuikinuxv Nation.
Marilyn Slett is Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council.
Wally Webber is Chief Councillor of Nuxalk Nation.
As governments around the world grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, the critical importance of testing, contact tracing, information sharing and co-ordinated community response right now and as we move ahead is clear. Countries have experienced different results with different approaches, and as Canadian provincial governments begin to announce their plans to reopen, experts have been focused on the best way to deploy those tools using the information they have, so that the safest approach is taken.
And yet, here in British Columbia, the First Nations Health Authority, which operates under Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), continues to not disclose to Indigenous governments where COVID-19 cases are occurring, citing the potential social harm to patients. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has stated that this non-disclosure is intended to ensure that people who are infected are protected from stigma that could keep them from reporting it. That’s in the spirit of the federal government’s even vaguer approach: Indigenous Services Canada reports only the cumulative number of positive cases, rather than deaths and recoveries.
Respectfully, and in the spirit of reconciliation, it is our view that this rationale misunderstands the role of Indigenous governments, and that this policy of non-disclosure puts Indigenous lives at risk. Indeed, according to Yellowhead Institute researcher Courtney Skye, the lack of data being shared with Indigenous communities is actually helping to create stigma, as a vacuum of even basic information cultivates a “vigilante mentality” among people. Now, as the B.C. government contemplates loosening the province’s restrictions on gathering and travel in the near term, and since the tragedy on Cormorant Island (Alert Bay) – where the 'Namgis First Nation recently lost a 57-year-old elder to COVID-19 while enduring 29 confirmed cases – that policy must be reconsidered urgently. That’s why the leaders of the Central Coast First Nations are calling on health authorities like VCH to share information about which communities have presumptive and confirmed COVID-19 cases so we can better protect our people.
Disclosing information to Indigenous governments is not the same as making it public. Our governments compile, receive and work with sensitive and confidential information every day. As with all governments, including British Columbia’s, our governments have protocols for how such information is used and secured. What appears to be the premise of the policy is the presumption that Indigenous governments could act irresponsibly – and that undermines the legitimacy of Indigenous self-government.
Furthermore, information about specific communities where COVID-19 has taken hold – without disclosure of identities – is important for Indigenous governments to have. Rural communities such as Bella Bella, Bella Coola, Oweekeno and Klemtu are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 because they have small populations where members live in close proximity to each other with limited medical resources. And crucially, each of our nations have elders who are at high risk of contracting the disease and dying. This is of grave concern, because elders are critical to our nations’ survival. They carry the cultural knowledge, language and memories of our peoples.
Given the high stakes, our nations need information on the location of COVID-19 cases to make informed decisions on the level of our emergency measures. Recently, Dr. Henry confirmed that Indigenous governments may exercise their rights of self-government to deny tourists entry to their territories as part of addressing COVID-19, but to truly exercise our rights and governance powers, First Nations leaders need to be empowered to do more. We cannot decide the necessity of stay-at-home orders, prohibitions on travel through our territories or reserves, closing businesses, testing or contact tracing, the provision of separate lodging, and resource-sharing around food, fuel and pharmaceuticals, if we are working blindfolded.
Ultimately, holding back potentially life-saving information only maintains a colonial relationship. Non-disclosure to Indigenous governments perpetuates the historic social and legal stigma that Indigenous peoples, societies and legal orders are illegitimate. It also runs counter to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, as well as the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which requires that the province’s laws be consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
True reconciliation requires that government actors, including health authorities like VCH, step back and recognize how vital it is to work with Indigenous governments. This means recognizing and honouring our history, traditions and cultures, and working together to address the effects of past and present harms, especially pandemics.
It is possible that the events on Cormorant Island would have unfolded differently if the health authority had worked with, and disclosed proximate COVID-19 cases to, the 'Namgis First Nation. And so we call on all health authorities to share COVID-19 information that could help save Indigenous lives.
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