Over two dozen leaders of small towns along the central and northern coast of B.C. are urging the provincial government to restrict non-essential travel as warming weather beckons a surge of unwanted tourists.
Despite countless pleas for visitors to stay away from remote and First Nation communities that are especially vulnerable to novel coronavirus and have limited medical resources, residents say they are seeing no visible effort to restrict non-essential travel, as outsiders continue to arrive by car, ferry and plane.
B.C. recently added hunting and fishing to the province’s list of essential services — seemingly ignoring the request of coastal leaders that provincial and federal governments step in to limit outside travel “for fishing, hunting and other leisure activities.”
“COVID-19 is an unprecedented threat to the survival of all citizens,” the open letter from April 6 states. “We have a short window of opportunity to work together to limit the introduction of COVID-19 into our coastal and island communities.”
The letter added that requests for people to voluntarily stay away from remote areas are likely to fall on deaf ears as people seek escape from their urban environments.
“People think things are going good and that life will get back to normal,” Jason Alsop (Gaagwiis), elected president of the Haida Nation, told The Narwhal.
“So then we’ll face that traffic and pressure on our communities’ resources, and obviously potential new [COVID-19] carriers coming here.”
“We’re all staying in, we’re all following the rules here. We’re all making the sacrifices and we expect others to do the same, so it’s not really fair to be coming here and having a vacation or having a good time.”
An online petition addressed to both governments is also circulating online, having gathered more than 3,000 signatures already.
Haida Gwaii, like many other municipalities in B.C., found their local state of emergency overridden by an overarching provincial order. As a result, Alsop told The Narwhal, the Haida Nation has been unable to patrol who comes off the ferry or docks at their harbour despite their territory being unceded.
He pointed to Alert Bay, a coastal village off Vancouver Island dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak where the first First Nations death in Canada has been recorded, as an example of what could happen if visitors show up. For him, it’s crucial to instigate barriers to prevent his community from being next.
On Monday, the nation’s G͟aw Tlagee Emergency Operation Centre distributed a notice on Facebook that “the communities of Haida Gwaii are no longer welcoming … visitors and people who are not full-time residents.”
The restriction is to stay in effect until COVID-19, including an expected second wave, is over.
When a ferry from Prince Rupert was scheduled to arrive at a Haida Gwaii port in Skidegate on Monday, more than 60 people lined the highway with masks, drums and signs to rally for non-locals to turn around, according to the Haida Gwaii Observer.
A checkpoint at the Haida Heritage Centre was put in place by locals to question those coming off the ferry and to make visitors feel unwelcome. The checkpoint was not mandated by police, but Queen Charlotte RCMP officers stood by to help keep peace.
The Observer reported the ferry carried groceries, local residents returning home from medical appointments and four passengers considered essential workers for the Dinan Bay diesel spill clean-up efforts. It’s unclear if any tourists were on the vessel.
The article added only residents and essential workers drove through the checkpoint, aside from one vehicle that refused to stop. It is unknown if the vehicle was carrying tourists.
As protestors began to disperse, fireworks were shot from a residence near the terminal and a vehicle blocking traffic at the terminal was towed.
In an email to The Narwhal, BC Ferries confirmed there were 32 passengers on board the ferry.
The company said it is not authorized to restrict travel — such orders would have to come from Emergency Management BC.
“Many communities served by BC Ferries have issued advisories to travellers notifying them visitors are not welcome at this time. Supplies, health-care equipment and resources are limited,” a BC Ferries spokesperson wrote.
“BC Ferries has posted signage at the Prince Rupert terminal advising customers that communities on Haida Gwaii are telling visitors they are not welcome at this time. We also made announcements on board the vessel.”
Kris Olsen, mayor of Queen Charlotte on Haida Gwaii, said this is the first time all these coastal leaders have joined forces and it is because they feel ignored.
“We decided that if we really want to approach the province again on a united front, then we do that with all of us coming together so that we can just emphasize the need for non-residents to stay away from us right now,” he said.
“We’re all fighting to protect our communities.”
The leaders said they informed Island RCMP and medical services of their letter to the province and federal government.
Olsen said B.C.’s decision to declare hunting and fishing as essential services creates a loophole for those wanting to travel. He added those with hunting and fishing permits should be heavily monitored to make sure they aren’t traveling outside of their local area.
Recently, residents were outraged that non-local hunters arrived on the island to take part in an annual bear trophy hunt, he said.
“It’s strange because the province has given us mixed messages. They say stay home, but on April 1, the bear hunt opened here. … It’s not essential, we don’t need that. … If people are getting food, that’s one thing, but this is just people coming with their guns from elsewhere,” Olsen explained.
“With the province still issuing permits for people, they’re saying one thing but doing the other. We don’t understand and that’s why we want to impose restrictions.”
“We’re all fighting to protect our communities.”
Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, who was copied on the letter and shared it on social media, said it’s difficult to know what the right decisions are.
“The provincial government is trying to create public policy in a challenging situation. … [They are in a] position where they have to balance a lot of different factors,” Bachrach said. “Overall, if you look at the provincial [COVID] numbers, we can be really proud of the job we’re doing here in British Columbia.”
Bachrach has called for a halt on sport fishing licences for out-of-province fishers, recognizing the threat they bring to remote regions. But so far, he said he’s impressed with how the area has come together to express themselves.
“This challenging period has brought out the best in our small communities. There’s been a real spirit of mutual aid and interdependence come to the fore, and it’s certainly heartening to see,” he said.
“The more that we can do to discourage non-essential travel, the better.”
In Bella Bella, residents were angered with the arrival of international boats at their harbour in early April.
“We’re asking that non-residents — tourists or visitors — do not come to Heiltsuk territory because it puts a strain on our limited resources,” Megan Humchitt, a band councillor with Heiltsuk First Nation, previously told The Narwhal.
Yet the problem of unwelcomed outsiders showing up continues in the region.
Samuel Schooner, Central Coast Regional District chair in Bella Coola and member of the Nuxalk Nation, said he’s still seeing out-of-province licence plates on vehicles in the area.
In Bella Coola, some visitors have also been seen bulk shopping at grocery stores, which he assumes means they’re stocking up on supplies to vacation at summer cabins nearby.
“Intuition tells me that they feel that they’re going to be safer in a place like this, but they also don’t think about the safety of our community and the limitations of our hospitals. It’s really frustrating and a lot of it lies with the B.C. government,” Schooner said.
“They really hurt us from having any ability or any way to protect our people.”
If COVID-19 hits any of their coastal communities, Schooner emphasized that most locals have nowhere else to go whereas visitors are privileged enough to escape it.
The nearby Nuxalk Nation has volunteers monitoring local checkpoints, but Schooner said he’d rather see official authorities take their place.
The territory of the Nuxalk Nation has also grown in popularity for sports fisherman, and unfamiliar boats in their waters are still making waves.
Schooner estimates 85 per cent of his people are currently unemployed and heavily rely on marine harvesting for sustenance. By fishing in their region, visitors could infringe on their natural food supply that has been depleting for years.
“We are the salmon people and if we lose the stock right now, there’s going to be a lot of people starving.”
In an email to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for Emergency Management BC’s Joint Information Centre wrote that “the vast majority of people are following Dr. Henry’s advice and our expectation is that people will continue to do so,” but those considering recreational travel need to think about the impacts to smaller communities.
The province recognizes the jurisdiction of First Nations, the spokesperson said, and although it has not issued an emergency order regarding travel into First Nations communities, it is working on a case by case basis to provide support such as signage and barriers if officially sanctioned travel restrictions are deemed necessary.
As for hunting deemed as an essential service, the spokesperson said it’s permitted as it’s under the “larger umbrella of Food and Agriculture Service Providers and the sub heading food cultivation.”
The spokesperson added the province does not list recreational hunting as an essential service.
Schooner said he hopes the province won’t be short-sighted as it considers what’s best for these communities.
First Nations everywhere are trying to revitalize their culture, Schooner said, and if Indigenous Elders are exposed to coronavirus, it could be devastating to their people, especially as they work to recover from previous traumas.
“We are starting to heal from what has been done to us but now there’s something like this and we’re not able to protect ourselves, that could be devastating,” he said.
“Elders are our language carriers, we need to protect those people. And if we lose them, we are losing our cultures.”
Update Thursday 9:40 a.m. PST: This article was updated to indicate Samuel Schooner is from Bella Coola, and not Bella Bella as previously stated. A typo was corrected to note Alert Bay is ‘off’ Vancouver Island and not ‘on’ Vancouver Island.
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