Bella Bella harbour coronavirus COVID-19

Heiltsuk First Nation urges outsiders to stay away after yachts arrive during B.C. coronavirus lockdown

The remote coastal community of Bella Bella, B.C., home to roughly 1,400 people, has little capacity to take care of its own residents with just one ventilator and only two doctors

The community of Bella Bella, B.C., is on lockdown. No one is coming in or out; even Heiltsuk First Nation members who live out of the territory are being asked to stay away for the moment.

But that hasn’t stopped the yachts.

“I’ve just watched five yachts pull into the Shearwater harbour,” says Megan Humchitt, a band councillor with Heiltsuk First Nation. “Which is quite concerning, since we do have a travel advisory in place.”

The travel advisory has been in place for more than two weeks. It tells non-residents they will be turned away. The community will also be broadcasting over VHF radio to inform boaters of the bylaw.

“We’re asking that non-residents — tourists or visitors — do not come to Heiltsuk territory because it puts a strain on our limited resources,” Humchitt says.

Jess Housty, Heiltsuk member and executive director of the Qqs Project Society, a youth, culture and environment non-profit in Bella Bella, took to Twitter to criticize the unwelcome arrivals, saying, “you shouldn’t be trying to draw down on our limited resources.”

Bella Bella is home to about 1,400 people, about a fifth of whom are Elders. The community has just one ventilator and only two permanent doctors. A small handful of other doctors visit the community on rotation.

“If there was an outbreak, only one person would be able to get that kind of care in the community,” says Dan Bertrand, a director of the Central Coast Regional District.

Any evacuation from a place like Bella Bella or nearby Klemtu or Rivers Inlet would have to be done by plane, which is highly dependent on weather.

So far the central coast has not seen any cases of COVID-19, but the fear of epidemics runs deep here, where entire villages were once wiped out by foreign diseases brought by outsiders.

“It’s only going to increase, because people are looking to be in places where they feel safe.”

“It’s a scary thought that those numbers could increase exponentially, and we don’t have the resources to take care of them,” Humchitt says. “We hardly have the resources to take care of ourselves.”

Bella Bella is a frequent stopover for yachters navigating the Inside Passage between Seattle and Alaska, and a popular destination in its own right by central coast standards. But it’s not the only community seeing yachters; Bertrand says Rivers Inlet, Ocean Falls and Bella Coola have all been visited as well. In the case of Bella Coola, one person even sped through a checkpoint the Nuxalk First Nation had set up outside the community without slowing down.

Bertrand says the provincial government should be stepping in to restrict intra-provincial travel. During wildfire season, it routinely asks the RCMP to manage traffic; he says this is no different.

COVID-19 is a “wildfire that will spread” to every community if it’s allowed to do so, he says.

In Bella Bella, one of the yachts was flying a Canadian flag, and two others had American flags. The First Nation has informed the Canadian government about the American vessels, given restrictions on non-essential travel that came into effect on March 21.

Humchitt is concerned that, despite warnings, people are going to continue to flout the local request and sail in.

“It’s only going to increase, because people are looking to be in places where they feel safe,” she says.

Shearwater harbour in Heiltsuk territory. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

This is not the first time non-residents have shown up where they’re not wanted to try to escape COVID-19. Last weekend a couple from Quebec arrived in Whitehorse, having sold all their possessions and driven across the country. They then flew immediately to Old Crow, the northernmost community in Yukon, thinking they would live off the land and wait out the pandemic.

“We were busy dealing with a life-altering pandemic, and this couple just strolls off the plane like cartoon characters,” Vuntut Gwitchin chief Dana Tizya-Tramm told me, reporting for VICE.

The couple was quarantined by the RCMP in the local Co-op store until they could be put on a plane back to Whitehorse.

In Bella Bella, the yachters are being asked to stay on their boats. Groceries will be brought to them, but stores have been asked not to let them — or other newcomers who haven’t self-isolated for 14 days — shop there.

“People might think we’re being assholes, closing everything down, turning people away, but man, that’s just what has to be done right now,” explains William Housty, a board member for the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.

The Heiltsuk Coastal Guardian Watchmen, the community’s eyes and ears on the water, are patrolling the waterways near Bella Bella to inform any potential visitors that the community is closed to visitors.

The town’s own dock is currently being used by one sailboat. It’s just down the hill from the band’s store and office, the centre of Bella Bella. The others, according to Humchitt, docked at Shearwater Resort and Marina on nearby Denny Island.

“Everybody sees them,” Housty says, adding the newcomers visibly stand out and are a very real source of fear. “It’s almost like someone’s got the plague, coming off a boat.”

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Update Friday, April 3, 2020 5:45 p.m. PST: This article incorrectly stated that Bella Bella has no doctors. In fact, the community has two permanent doctors and additional doctors that visit on rotation. The story has been updated to reflect this fact.

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