British Columbia

Pause sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, restrict contact to stop COVID-19, say Indigenous doctors

As the COVID-19 numbers grow in British Columbia, Indigenous doctors and leaders are taking action to stop the virus from spreading.

Some leaders will call RCMP if outsiders enter their First Nation

Dr. James Makokis says it's important for Indigenous people to look at how their ancestors survived the small pox and Spanish flu epidemics with social distancing. (Courtesy Dr. James Makokis )

As the number of people with novel coronavirus in Canada grows, Indigenous doctors are warning community members to temporarily halt ceremonies like sweat lodges that could spread the virus and put elders at risk.

"We need to fly in a new way," said Dr. Evan Adams, who is the chief medical officer of B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority.

Adams, who is from the Tla'amin Nation on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, lost three grandparents to tuberculosis.

"Some of our old practices like ceremony, or how we gather for funerals to show respect for individuals, need to change."

He echoed instructions from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry telling people to keep one or two metres from each other and not hold gatherings with more than 50 people.

He also explained that, while critical to mental health and healing, some practices are particularly risky.

"There can be physical contact [involving] saliva when you're ... passing a pipe where you could have transmission," Adams said.

Dr. Evan Adams is the chief medical officer of B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority. He says there are no known cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities in Canada, and hopes it will stay that way. (First Nations Health Authority)

Henry has also cautioned the public that being in a hot room — surrounded by sweaty people — is the perfect way to spread a virus.

Surviving an outbreak 

Dr. James Makokis, from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in central Alberta, says ceremonies that pose a risk need only be stopped until the spread of coronavirus in Canada is contained.

He also asked Indigenous people to remember how their ancestors survived the small pox and Spanish flu outbreaks  —  by social distancing.

"So yes, socially distance, modify some of your ceremonies and cultural practices or conduct them just with the family you live with, and also listen to what the health authorities are telling us," Makokis said. 

Nitanis Desjarlais, a Cree and Metis mother living in Nuu-chah-nulth territory with her husband and their nine children, said she is worried about the safety of elders, some whom are the only fluent Indigenous language speakers in their communities.

"Our elders are so precious to us, they hold so much knowledge and we don't want to see them being affected by this virus so we have to be very careful," Desjarlais said.

Desjarlais thinks is a good time to connect more with immediate family and the land.

"This is a great time for this pause in the country to critically think about how we're living with the planet and how we live with one another and how we take care of one another," Desjarlais said. 

Some of Nitanis Desjarlais nine children. She is encouraging people to take a pause while the pandemic is ongoing, to connect with immediate family members and the land. (Nitanis Desjarlais)

Communities bar outsiders

Meantime, some remote communities like Ahousat and Alert Bay, both located off the shores of Vancouver Island, and the B.C. Central Coast communities of  Bella Bella and Kingcome Inlet have restricted non-residents from entering. 

Willie Moon, the elected council chairman of the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation in Kingcome Inlet,  says his community put out an advisory closing its borders. 

"One of the things that we would do, if people are not living in the community and try to come in, is we would certainly be calling the RCMP," Moon said.

He is particularly concerned for people in the community who have suppressed immune systems — people with diabetes and heart conditions.

He is also pleading with residents who are not at home to come back as soon as possible. 

Most Indigenous communities have limited health care facilities. Communities that do have hospitals, like Bella Bella, are testing for COVID-19, but those capabilities are also limited. 

Ottawa will send tents

The federal government is prepared to use isolation tents and temporary shelters for screening and testing in communities that lack adequate infrastructure to deal with COVID-19.  Adams said he thinks that's a good idea.

"If you're going to set up a temporary facility where people are going to be assessed, the best place to see them is in a tent like structure," he said.

Adams is hopeful that Ottawa will rise to the challenge of getting tents and other equipment needed to Indigenous communities in a timely matter. He also hopes all Canadians will step up to protect each other by being disciplined to keep social distance. 

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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.