British Columbia

Several B.C. First Nations introduce 'community self-isolation' to avoid COVID infections

Several B.C. First Nations are self-isolating their communities as they try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Indigenous communities hope to protect vulnerable elders

Northern Health posted this COVID-19 prevention poster. Some B.C. First Nations hope to stall the spread by isolating their communities. (Betsy Trumpener )

Several First Nations in B.C. are taking COVID-19 public health measures into their own hands by self-isolating their communities.

While the federal government announced it would use isolation tents and temporary shelters in the case of outbreaks on remote reserves, community nurses are also preparing their responses.

But some Indigenous leaders hope taking preventive measures now will keep the virus at bay.

On Haida Gwaii, about 50 kilometres off B.C.'s north coast, the Council of the Haida Nation and two local band councils have issued their own travel advisory. 

 

Haida leaders are asking all residents of Haida Gwaii, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to avoid travelling off-island and then returning. 

"With limited emergency resources available, any exposure could have significant consequences on Haida Gwaii," the advisory states. 

Haida leaders say the decision was made with input from the First Nations Health Authority.

All residents of Haida Gwaii are being asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside of the island archipelago located off B.C.'s North Coast. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

'Social Distancing by Geography'

"They do have the advantage of social distancing by geography," said Shannon McDonald , deputy chief medical officer at the First Nations Health Authority. "They can say, 'We don't want anybody coming in that is a carrier or ...  a risk for transmission of the virus within our community.' "

Meanwhile, the Takla Nation, about 400 km northwest of Prince George in northern B.C., wants to keep outsiders away from its remote communities. 

"With all due respect, we do NOT encourage any visit from outside Takla, for the safety of our elders and those that have weak immune systems," said Chief John French in a written statement. 

 

Chronic illnesses put some residents at greater risk

Terry Teegee, regional chief with the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, is a member of the Takla Lake First Nation. 

He said he commends community self-isolation.

Teegee says it's vital to protect elders, who are both family members and the keepers of Indigenous language and culture.

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, says the devastation of past pandemics on Indigenous communities is top of mind. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"The spread of the virus in our communities would be, quite frankly, devastating," Teegee told CBC News. 

Teegee said diseases like diabetes are also prevalent in Indigenous communities, making people more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. 

Smallpox 'fresh in our minds'

Teegee says the current outbreak has to be seen in the context of historic pandemics, including smallpox, measles and the Spanish flu.  

"It's still fresh in our minds.," said Teegee. "It's not that long ago ... that pandemics devastated Indigenous communities. You know, we had communities of hundreds if not thousands of people, and they were just gone. That's the devastation."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly put the distance between Vancouver and Haida Gwaii at 2,000 km. While that's true as the crow flies, it is, in fact, 1,717.7 km by road and ferry.
    Mar 17, 2020 12:44 PM PT

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous national and provincial journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary. Based out of Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.