British Columbia

Haida Nation, fearing infection, escalates enforcement of visitor ban

Hundreds of people from Haida Gwaii took part in a protest to greet any visitors arriving on BC Ferries on Monday, as fear of COVID-19 infection on the island led to escalated enforcement of a visitor ban to the islands.

Hundreds of island locals took part in protest at BC Ferries terminal on Monday

Visitors to Haida Gwaii are not welcome, as fears over the spread of COVID-19 to the so-far-unscathed remote community rise. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Hundreds of people from Haida Gwaii took part in a protest to greet any visitors arriving on BC Ferries on Monday, as fear of COVID-19 infection led to escalated enforcement of a visitor ban to the islands.

However, none of the 32 passengers who disembarked from the Northern Expedition vessel turned out to be non-essential visitors, according to the RCMP.

The protest marked heightened concern over the potential for the virus to spread in the remote area, following an outbreak in Alert Bay which killed a woman last week.

"This afternoon, the Haida Nation, Old Massett Village Council and Skidegate Band Council are escalating our coordination and enforcement of non-resident travel to the Islands," said Gaagwiis Jason Alsop, president of the Haida Nation in a statement posted online.

Emergency measures put in place by the Council of the Haida Nation more than a month ago include travel restrictions. Non-resident and leisure travel to Haida Gwaii are prohibited.

On Monday, Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters the issue is entwined with the province's relationship with First Nations, and their self-governance.

"They do have the ability and the authorities to make those decisions for their communities," said Henry, whose comment was echoed by Health Minister Adrian Dix.

'One is too many'

According to Teri Kish, emergency Coordinator for Old Massett, there are only 12 hospital beds on Haida Gwaii, along with two ventilators. There hasn't been a single COVID-19 case there, and an outbreak would quickly overrun the available health resources, she said.

"You're not welcome," Kish said to anyone thinking of making the trip to the remote community. "Visitors are not welcome on Haida Gwaii at this time."

She was part of the group gathered at the ferry terminal to greet people as they disembarked, with a strong message that anyone there for hunting, fishing or other recreation should turn around and get back on the ferry to the mainland.

"We're told there's 32 people coming off this ferry today and one is too many," said Kish, adding that visitors would be told to turn right around and remain at the terminal until they could board a ferry and leave.

BC Ferries confirmed the number of passengers, but said they appeared to be residents, people bringing supplies, and essential services. 

BC Ferries, which doesn't have the power to restrict travel to its destinations, said an announcement was made aboard the Northern Expedition vessel on Monday, saying visitors weren't welcome. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Spokesperson Deborah Marshall said there was an announcement on the ship saying that visitors weren't welcome on Haida Gwaii, but the company couldn't do much beyond that.

"We're not authorized to restrict travel; an order like that would have to come from Emergency Management BC," said Marshall.

RCMP Sgt. Greg Willcocks said hundreds of people arrived to take part in the protest, and police were there to ensure everything was peaceful.

He said that the only outsiders who appeared to arrive on the ferry were members of a spill response team that had been pre-approved by local authorities.

Last week, Coast Guard officials confirmed a 4,500-litre diesel spill had taken place in Masset Inlet.

Kish said all campgrounds and accommodations are closed. She said residents returning to the islands are welcome, but they'll be expected to quarantine for 14 days.

The Northern Expedition sailing back to Prince Rupert was scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m., but Marshall said it is set to depart at 6 a.m., due to poor weather in the forecast. 


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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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