British Columbia

Tŝilhqot'in chief adds voice to chorus of leaders calling for unity amid reports of racism

The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is calling for unity with its neighbours in the Cariboo-Chilcotin area of B.C., saying Indigenous community members are being stimatized and shunned as COVID-19 carriers.

'Our real fight is against COVID-19 and we must work together to defeat it,' Chief Joe Alphonse says

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, says 'it's outrageous and unacceptable that our people are experiencing racism as a result of a global pandemic.' (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

A B.C. First Nations leader is calling for unity in the Williams Lake area of the province after recent reports of racism and discrimination.

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tŝilhqot'in Nation, says while some members have experienced goodwill and positive gestures, others are reporting they were denied services in nearby Williams Lake because they are from the Tŝilhqot'in Nation.

"It's outrageous and unacceptable that our people are experiencing racism as a result of a global pandemic," Alphonse said in a media release.

The release did not give specific details of the racist acts, but said people are commenting in online forums and on social media about Indigenous people being responsible for bringing COVID-19 to the area.

"We hope that people will stop pointing blame at one another, stop creating false enemies and remember that our real fight is against COVID-19 and we must work together to defeat it," Alphonse said.

Other community leaders say Indigenous people are being stigmatized and shunned as COVID-19 carriers.

Chief Willie Sellars says his Williams Lake First Nation was open and public about dozens of COVID-19 cases last month, but that transparency has turned against them.

"Everyone sees those numbers and goes, 'Oh, Williams Lake First Nation, that means all your members aren't safe to be in our stores,'" Sellars said.

In January, the Williams Lake First Nation reported 42 cases of COVID-19. Now there are just three, according to Sellars.

Reports of racism toward First Nations members started surfacing mid-January when the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island became the target of online vitriol.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rose, the mayor of North Cowichan come out swinging on social media.

"Some of the posts I've seen are vile; filled with racism and an 'us/them' mentality. They are fear based and they are inappropriate," wrote Mayor Al Siebring on Facebook.

The mayor of Williams Lake says people in the community are tired and stressed out from negotiating the upheaval of living through a pandemic. While he has not seen or heard any racist incidents, Mayor Walter Cobb describes the behaviour as "deplorable."

"It's unacceptable ... and I think the people of Williams Lake would feel the same way," said Cobb.

With files from Betsy Trumpener

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