Kitimat coronavirus

Northwest B.C. officials call for calm amid coronavirus misinformation, social media shaming

Both Terrace and Kitimat are grappling with the challenges large workforces present to physical distancing as major resource projects considered essential services continue during the COVID-19 lockdown

Rumours, allegations and public shaming on social media have been rampant during the COVID-19 lockdown, according to Kitimat Mayor Phil Germuth. The focus of the fury has been on local industries — including the LNG Canada terminal, Coastal GasLink pipeline and Rio Tinto aluminium smelter — that have been deemed essential services and continue operating. 

In a series of recent posts circulating on Facebook, locals from the Kitimat and Terrace areas shared images of industry workers out in public and at grocery stores, allegedly breaking physical distancing, to express concern about the potential for non-locals to transmit coronavirus to the broader community. 

Industry work camps in B.C. have been questioned for failing to provide adequate sanitation and work conditions necessary to comply with physical distancing rules.

But some of the posts don’t paint a full picture of how industry is operating and may be spreading false information, Germuth told The Narwhal. 

“Starting or spreading rumours may provoke panic and raise stress levels amongst people in our community and region during a time that emotions are already very elevated,” the mayor wrote in an email. 

“Additionally, we have released communications encouraging people in Kitimat to gently, politely and respectfully remind each other about the need to practise effective physical distancing techniques rather than trying to shame people on social media.”

Germuth said people should only trust information from official and credible sources to avoid spreading rumours.

Yet social media posts continue to creep up, leaving some residents questioning the validity of both sides in a sea of angst. 

Amid confirmed work site COVID-19 case, tensions grow

Roiling anxiety and a desire to take action is understandable given the circumstances, Terrace-based community counsellor Cheryl Gray told The Narwhal.

Gray said people in smaller communities, such as those in the North, feel they have a responsibility to keep their circles informed as they’re closely connected to one another and face similar challenges.

In the midst of the provincial lockdown, Gray said people are relying on details from their neighbours to formulate a better understanding of the situation. 

“I think with the fear of the unknown, we grasp onto anything because things are changing so quickly and there’s so much that we don’t know and people just want to replace that with something that seems true,” Gray said.

However, some of those fears have sprouted from reality.

On March 28, LNG Canada notified workers that an employee at its Kitimat facility had tested positive for coronavirus after experiencing mild symptoms. The individual had immediately returned to their home to self-isolate, the company said in a letter, adding that no one staying at its lodges has tested positive

The day prior, the company had announced it was reducing its workforce by 65 per cent, limiting the use of fly-in fly-out workers and cutting the number of workers staying in work camps from approximately 1,800 to 590.

When The Narwhal requested an interview, LNG Canada responded with a link to its FAQ page.

LNG Canada project, Kitimat B.C. 2017

The site of the LNG Canada project in Kitimat B.C. in 2017. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

A video published on Facebook by the Unist’ot’en Camp, with filming marked on March 20 and April 1, showcases Coastal GasLink workers not practising physical distancing or fully understanding procedures.

Coastal GasLink did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for an interview but provided details via email that its workforce numbers have declined to approximately 300 people, primarily locals at various locations across the 670-kilometre route, who are said to now be following COVID-19 company protocols.

The company said it has no comment “about social media posts or opposition videos and cannot confirm their authenticity.”

In a recent Coastal GasLink construction update, the company said only 43 workers had stayed at their workforce accommodation site, Little Rock Lake Lodge, along Section 5 during the month of March. 

Overall, 72 per cent of the route has been cleared between Dawson Creek area and Kitimat, with an approximate total of 130 workers to occupy accommodation sites during the stall. 

Emily Laidlaw, University of Calgary associate professor of law, recently told the CBC that naming and shaming can be a powerful source of public good, such as when members of the public call out a company for bad behaviour. 

“It’s a strangely complicated area right because we actually rely on shame sanctions all the time,” Laidlaw said. But, she added, it’s crucial to have all the facts on hand. “Do we actually know what’s happening on the ground to know if they really are complying or not? Or is it just the perception of [wrongdoing]?”

“We just need to calm down with the disproportionate ‘take him out’ mentality that we’re seeing right now online that’s not helping anybody,” Laidlaw said. 

As of April 16, there were 32 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region. 

Small towns with big industries that rely on out-of-town workers and contractors can exacerbate an innate fear of “outsiders” that can rise up in times of crises, said Gray, the Terrace community counsellor. Tensions can be particularly pronounced for those who may, for political or values-based reasons, oppose the work of those industries.

“I can see that here, especially with those who may have opposed industry [in the first place],” she said. “Then there’s already that baseline of people not being happy with them being here.”

Rio Tinto BC Works spokesperson Kevin Dobbin said he’s noticed workers from Quebec have been targeted and suggests it might relate to broader political issues. 

“There’s some labour relations [issues],” he said. “Some of the locals don’t like the contractors.”

The outpouring of public concern has industry and local leaders working to combat both reasonable fears and baseless speculation amid an uproar of inaccuracies.

‘Busload of people’ accusations false: Rio Tinto

One widely shared image on Facebook on April 4 shows a work camp bus parked in front of the Walmart in Terrace — which had some users convinced an entire busload of workers, possibly exposed to coronavirus from Quebec, swarmed into the store.

Dobbin debunked the rumour and told The Narwhal that only three workers were on that bus to practise physical distancing. 

“Today, social media is rapid, and people are very nervous and anxious. I can understand, but it’s just too bad people aren’t looking at the facts,” explained Dobbin, noting his company’s office was flooded with calls regarding that event.

“The fact is that people from Kitimat, three of them, went up on a 47-passenger bus to get groceries in Terrace. They don’t have vehicles because they are contractors living in apartments.”

According to Rio Tinto, only a handful of employees were brought in from Quebec while others were brought in from other locations in B.C. Many of the Quebec workers were already in Kitimat when the pandemic hit and have agreed to stay on until the end of May when the company will re-evaluate the situation.

“There were 27 people on turnaround when we made that decision in March so out of that 27, two or three have trickled back in a week … and will stay with us for the next couple of months,” he said.

Currently, Rio Tinto has approximately 1,000 employees and nearly 400 contractors on site working on various projects, Dobbin stated, emphasizing the vast majority of the workforce is local.

In Kitimat, residents continue to post photos of buses dropping off contractors at homes in residential neighbourhoods. One picture posted on April 5 shows a cluster of workers sitting outside an apartment building, drinking and smoking, according to the user. 

In reference to the image and concerns raised in the post, Dobbin said Rio Tinto is urging employees to practise physical distancing outside of work.

“We are working really hard with them to self-isolate when they’re not at work,” he said. “We have spoken to those employees and said, ‘You need to respect all physical distancing all the time.’ ”

Other posts mention workers showing symptoms of COVID-19 are being treated by health-care workers in protective suits. 

Those posts are somewhat true, Dobbin said, as Rio Tinto now approaches every potential case with safety precautions. However, he added, this does not mean the employees tested positive for the virus and represent a threat to the community.

Rio Tinto smelter

Premier John Horgan visiting the Rio Tinto smelter in October of 2017. Photo: Province of B.C. / Flickr

‘I’m so scared and stressed out’

Germuth said employers have been asked to “refrain to the greatest extent possible from bringing workers from outside of the Kitimat-Terrace area into our community,” but Rio Tinto has recently flown in contractors from SL&B in Quebec to complete their pot-relining project at the smelter. 

Rio Tinto considers pot-relining as crucial maintenance at the smelter, Dobbin said. If stalled, it can take months to resume. 

The decision to fly in the SL&B workers, even after non-essential travel was discouraged by all levels of government, doesn’t appear to be entirely supported by the community. Dobbin said 100 non-locals were hired to work on the project alongside 149 local residents. 

Posts spread online that workers from Quebec immediately entered a Rio Tinto work site without quarantining upon arrival in Kitimat. 

One user, who appears to work with SL&B for Rio Tinto in Kitimat, wrote that after being told by a supervisor about the non-local workers’ arrival, he was scared for his life “and [for] the people I live with.”

“The company I work for sure don’t care for us employees,” wrote the worker, who did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for an interview. “I’m so scared and stressed out.” The post was then shared by another user to Rio Tinto’s Facebook page.

Employees who returned to work had to complete a health-screening questionnaire before leaving their home base and a screening with a medical contractor on arrival at the Northwest Regional Airport in Terrace, he said.

Martin McIlwrath, Unifor Local 2301 president representing Rio Tinto workers, said they didn’t know about the matter until it was flagged by dozens of members.

“That was very, very concerning for us. We weren’t aware that was still happening, especially on the scale that it was … that group of workers they were bringing, were coming in from Quebec, which most people know is a hotspot in Canada for COVID-19 because it has the most cases,” he said, adding that he would like to see more local workers trained to do these jobs instead.

Since mid-March, Unifor has been in regular discussions with Rio Tinto to monitor safety regulations and ensure workers feel comfortable at work or are compensated accordingly if a leave is necessary. As a result of these meetings, for example, workers now start shifts in slots to avoid high-density gatherings and have been assigned a core team to help minimize their range of contacts. 

McIlwrath said the labour movement has been a part of the community since 1957 and have a record of victories against Rio Tinto, which they will not hesitate to challenge throughout the pandemic.

Rio Tinto's Kitimat smelter facility. Photo: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto’s Kitimat smelter facility. Photo: Rio Tinto

Social media posts about out-of-town workers were publicly addressed by Rio Tinto at an open online District of Kitimat council meeting on April 6.

On April 7, Rio Tinto announced its decision on Facebook to stop travel for all fly-in fly-out workers for its smelter until at least the end of May, with the exception of emergency and critically essential travel that must be approved by the general manager and subject to a risk assessment. This announcement was made within a week of the union formally noting its concern. 

“We are confident this additional precaution will enable us to better protect our community during the COVID-19 pandemic, while we progress on our pot-replacement project,” reads the Facebook post, which also encourages locals to apply for positions with SL&B.

Dobbin added there are no regulations from the BC Centre for Disease Control requiring interprovincial travellers to self-isolate — unless they are symptomatic or have been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case.

For McIlwrath, the only accurate way to screen outside workers is actually testing them for COVID-19 as the current screenings in place can easily bypass asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. He understands the community’s anxiety and wants to see tight measures carried on.

“People are anxious, they’re worried, they’re very concerned,” McIlwrath said. “Some people feel the controls are too much and other people feel like they’re not enough.”

“It’s a balancing act for sure, but I’d rather see people overreact than under… I’m not willing to sacrifice one of our members.”

Kitimat and Terrace mayors remain supportive

Despite social media criticism, community leaders have not expressed concerns about industry continuing.

Germuth commended the local industries “for the proactive measures they have taken to protect our community and their employees.”

Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc told The Narwhal via email that “for the local people still working on the project, it keeps paycheque dollars circulating through our businesses.” 

She notes if people have concerns about industry, they can reach out to their industry contacts to express them. 

For Gray, she said shaming people online has become popular over the years and isn’t surprised to see a surge during these times. 

“There’s no reason for me to think that it would stop now, especially when it might come down to something like life or death,” she says. “People might be a little more firm about that stuff or be more aggressive [in sharing it].”

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Natalia Balcerzak is a journalist in Northwest B.C., delving into the pressing issues of the region as it rapidly grows…

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