British Columbia

Dr. Bonnie Henry condemns B.C. businesses for refusing entry to Indigenous people due to COVID-19 fears

The CBC has learned of several B.C. establishments that have denied Indigenous people entry, assuming the would-be customers have COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus.

Businesses say it's not racism, say there's been misunderstanding

Tla’amin Nation Councillor Brandon Peters said he was shocked to hear that members of his community were not allowed into stores like Save-On-Foods in Powell River, B.C. (Submitted by Brandon Peters)

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has added her voice to those condemning businesses for denying Indigenous people entry due to COVID-19 fears, calling it racism. 

But the businesses — which include a restaurant, dentist's office and grocery store — claimed they were trying to stop COVID-19 from spreading from nearby Indigenous communities.

The CBC has learned that Save-On-Foods in Powell River, the Glen Lyon Restaurant in Port Hardy, and a dentist's office in Duncan all refused service to Indigenous people, citing cases of COVID-19 in their communities as a reason. 

When Tla'amin Nation Councillor Brandon Peters learned that members of his Tla'amin Nation were denied access to the nearby Save-On-Foods, he was shocked.

"That's infringing on our human rights, it's assuming every single First Nation person [in the community] has COVID," Peters said.

The incidents come amid concerns that provincial data identifying the exact location of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities is made public — often by First Nations themselves — while geographical data for municipalities and other regions of B.C. is not.

A representative from Save-On-Foods, whose Whitehorse store is pictured, said there was confusion about whether the store would serve customers from the Tla'amin Nation during the community's voluntary lockdown. (Steve Silva/CBC)

In September, when the Tla'amin Nation was hit with a COVID-19 outbreak, the band issued a notice that members were to shelter in place. That's when stores including Save-On-Foods told Tla'amin residents they were not allowed in.

"I was aware that some of the Tla'amin folks were being rejected, not just at Save-On, but at other stores as well," said Powell River Mayor Dave Formosa. 

"Just that it's easy to tell, they're Indigenous," he said.

"I think that it was stereotyping, I don't know if it would be racism, they were just saying, 'Oh, the people from Tla'amin are are supposed to be staying home,'" Formosa said. 

The shelter-in-place order still allowed nation members to access essential services, but a Save-On-Foods representative said the message was confusing.

"There was some confusion in the Powell River community about whether Save-On-Foods would be serving customers from the Tla'amin Nation during their voluntary community lockdown," a representative from Save-On-Foods told the CBC.

'Rejected again'

Earlier this month, 80-year-old Fort Rupert resident Violet Bracic said she was told by the owner of the Glen Lyon Restaurant that she couldn't come in. The business is in Port Hardy, a 10-minute drive from her community. 

"I mumbled my discontent and said 'rejected again.' It is appalling. We're decent people," said Bracic, who is Kwagiulth and lives on the Fort Rupert reserve.

Her daughter, who was with her at the time was also not allowed in. Another elder from Fort Rupert was also denied access.

"I just feel like we're back in residential school days, you know, where they just think we're dirty Indians," said Jamie Hunt, another Fort Rupert resident who took to Facebook to express her outrage about the rejections.

At the time, the community had one positive COVID-19 case, but the owner said he had heard there was an outbreak.

"There was some misinformation and we are sorry. It was the wrong decision," said Glen Lyon Restaurant owner Jacob Bennett.

Violet Bracic, front, says she was hurt when she was told she was barred from entering the Glen Lyon Restaurant in Port Hardy because the owner feared her community would spread COVID-19 to his patrons. (Submitted by Jamie Hunt)

He said he also denied entry to people from Port Hardy whom he suspected had been in contact with a confirmed case. But Bennett noted he had little information to go on since the health authorities release little information about individual towns and cities.

Many Indigenous communities in B.C. have chosen to go public with their positive cases.

Racism is result of lack of data, says mayor

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring took to Facebook earlier this week to share his concerns about discrimination against Cowichan Tribes members, some of whom he says were rejected from big box stores and a local dentist. 

"I'm beyond extremely concerned," Siebring said in the Facebook post. 

When Cowichan Tribes member Barb Jimmy, 62, attempted to make an appointment with her dentist earlier this month she was asked only if she still lived on-reserve. She was not asked any of the standard COVID-19 screening questions. She told Victoria's CHEK News that when she said she lived on-reserve she was denied service.

That dentist's office has since said they "feel terrible about the grave miscommunication ... and will make every effort to ensure it doesn't occur again."

The Cowichan Tribes have a shelter-in-place order as they are grappling with an outbreak that has affected more than 90 people. But Siebring said while they are not the only ones testing positive for COVID-19, they are the only ones who seem to have access to data.

"I, as mayor in North Cowichan and any other elected official municipality in B.C., doesn't know the rate of COVID in our communities — the health authorities are not sharing that," he said.

"This is how [First Nations] are being rewarded for that transparency," he said.

Siebring said it would make more sense if Dr. Henry and other provincial health officials were more transparent about the locations of all cases. 

In a statement to CBC News, Henry said being more transparent about the data would not help the situation. 

"This is sadly an issue of racism and I do not believe it has anything to do with provincial data releases. COVID-19 has illuminated longstanding inequities and in particular those faced by First Nations in B.C. I want to add my voice to the chorus who have condemned such behaviour." 


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.