British Columbia

First Nations seek order forcing ministry to release data on COVID-19 cases near their communities

A coalition of First Nations is calling for an order forcing the B.C. Ministry of Health to release data on confirmed and presumptive COVID-19 cases near their communities, saying the province is violating the privacy act and endangering lives by keeping the information private.

Heiltsuk Nation also calling for community-led contact tracing

Marilyn Slett is the elected chief councillor for the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, based in Bella Bella, B.C. The Heiltsuk Nation said it has been trying since May to have the B.C. Ministry of Health release data on COVID-19 cases proximate to its community, without success. (Supplied by Marilyn Slett )

A coalition of First Nations is calling for an order forcing the B.C. Ministry of Health to release data on confirmed and presumptive COVID-19 cases near their communities, saying the province is violating the privacy act and endangering lives by keeping the information private.

The Heiltsuk Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and Tŝilhqot'in National Government have filed a petition on Monday with the province's privacy commissioner, asking for the order against the ministry.

The coalition's campaign website said information about cases of COVID-19 in neighbouring communities would give them the data they need to protect themselves, conduct culturally safe contact tracing and "reduce the risk of racist interactions with the health-care system."

The nations have been asking the province for information about cases proximate to their rural communities for months without success, according to the petition.

"The [Health] Ministry's ongoing refusal to share proximate case information and resources for contact tracing is putting Indigenous lives at risk," Heiltsuk Councillor Megan Humchitt said in a written statement on Monday.

The petition said the province is violating the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by refusing to disclose the data to the nations. Section 25 of the Act says states that a minister — in this case, Health Minister Adrian Dix — "must, without delay," disclose information about a "risk of significant harm to an affected group of people."

The nations said they are an affected group of people because Indigenous communities — and, particularly, their elders — face a higher threat from COVID-19, as has been proven in previous devastating pandemics with smallpox and the Spanish flu.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said it's "very challenging" to record presumptive COVID-19 cases, because the provincial health authorities often don't know where the cases have been until they are confirmed positive.

"I have no way of knowing who was attending those [COVID-19 exposure] events ahead of time," Henry said. "In many cases, the [Indigenous] community will know before we know when somebody is ill and before they go for testing."

Henry also said knowledge of COVID-19 cases in neighbouring communities may not make people feel safer.

"It's hard to quantify the risk [of contracting the coronavirus] by geography without taking into account the fact that it [the virus] travels with people," she said.

Community-led contact tracing

The Heiltsuk Nation has also renewed its call on the B.C. government to collaborate and adopt a community-led contact tracing mechanism on its reserve land, after two COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Bella Bella last week.

Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, said contact tracing works best to stop the spread of coronavirus when contact tracers are members of the community.

"We know our community members. We know our social networks. We know baseline information that would be readily available," she said to Faith Fundal, guest host of CBC's Daybreak North, about the advantages of culturally-safe contact tracing.

Henry said Monday she has been working with the First Nations Health Authority and Indigenous communities on creating a "circle of support" for First Nations members who are in isolation due to illness or contact with a COVID case, but she said more work has yet to be done on culturally-safe contact tracing.

"It's worked very well in some situations, not so well in other situations," Henry said.

Tap the link below to listen to an interview with Marilyn Slett on Daybreak North:

Daybreak host Faith Fundal speaks with Marilyn Slett, chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation. 6:36

With files from CBC's Daybreak North

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