British Columbia

With 22 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Indigenous communities, leaders urge officials to disclose locations

Following an outbreak in Alert Bay, B.C., leaders say they want information on COVID-19 cases broken down not just into regions but into specific Indigenous communities.

First Nations Health Authority says it won't release exact locations of cases to prevent stigma

Kim van der Woerd, a researcher and instructor at SFU, is calling on the province to disseminate information about specific outbreaks in Indigenous communities so that they can protect themselves from the spread of the infection. (Supplied by Kim van der Woerd)

There are 22 cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities in B.C., according to Indigenous Services Canada, but provincial and First Nations health authorities won't say where exactly those cases are.

Keeping the locations of COVID-19 cases undisclosed is a problem, Indigenous leaders say, because it limits what communities can do to trace the illness and protect themselves from further outbreaks.

As it stands, provincial health officials are only naming regions where cases or clusters are, and are keeping specific neighbourhoods and communities under wraps. 

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says that's to ensure those infected are protected from stigma that could keep them from reporting infection.

But Indigenous leaders like Kim van der Woerd say that lack of communication and specific information makes it difficult for communities to prepare and put medical, security and monetary resources where they are needed.

"If we don't have good data to tell us where the outbreaks are happening, then our communities aren't able to do what they need to do to ensure their safety," said van der Woerd, a researcher and instructor at Simon Fraser University.

Van der Woerd says in the past Indigenous people endured outbreaks of other viruses and did everything they could to curtail infection, but lost hundreds of thousands of people.

"Now we have the technology and the ability to get the data and to understand it, where historically we haven't had that," she said.

On the ferry to Cormorant Island and the community of Alert Bay, where a COVID-19 outbreak was confirmed earlier this week. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

'Rumours fly'

The call for disaggregated data comes after an outbreak in Alert Bay, B.C., was made public by the mayor of the community on Cormorant Island, which is home to two First Nations. Mayor Dennis Buchanan went public after discovering he had the virus, even though he hasn't left the island since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

Buchanan told CBC News that two people who tested positive for COVID-19 were medevaced to hospitals outside the community.

On Monday, Henry confirmed there were six to eight cases in the community of just 1,500 people.

Alert Bay resident Ray McKinny, from the Tlowitsis Nation, is one of those infected, along with his 73-year-old mother, even though they also hadn't left the island.

Ray McKinny, an Alert Bay resident and member of the Tlowitsis Nation, said there's a lot of finger-pointing over how the coronavirus got into the community. (Supplied by Ray McKinny)

McKinny says there's a lot of finger-pointing and, without official information, "rumours fly." He says verified details about cases could protect the most vulnerable.

"I want to make sure no one gets this and I wish for everyone to stay in because [a large percentage] of this island are elders," McKinny said. 

'We need to know'

For other Indigenous communities on the Central Coast, fear is rising about the virus making its way in. 

The Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella enacted its own lockdown this week, including a travel ban to and from the community and strict stay-at-home and no-gathering orders.

"Knowing that this virus is continuing to spread and is making its way into the more isolated communities is what prompted us to take it to the next level," Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said.

She agrees more information and co-ordination is needed from the provincial and First Nations health authorities.

Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett says the community instituted emergency measures this week in order to further protect the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella from COVID-19.  (Supplied by Marilyn Slett)

"I completely understand the stigma and people have a right to privacy and I respect that, but our community needs to know what the threats to us are and how we can protect ourselves," she added.

But the First Nations Health Authority, which is responsible for disseminating health information to B.C. First Nations, said it is firm on keeping information about outbreaks in Indigenous communities private.

"I absolutely understand where communities are coming from," said Dr Shannon McDonald, the authority's deputy chief medical officer.

"However, there there is still an element of stigma and I know it's attached to fear," McDonald said.

'Limited our ability to respond'

McDonald said she thinks it's a good idea for Indigenous communities to enact their own emergency measures during the pandemic, but she emphasized that they do not have the ability to penalize people for ignoring a barrier, travel ban or curfew.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, says such limits on enforcing orders speak to a lack of recognition of Indigenous rights. 

"We have this colonial system that's been allowed to be there and it has limited our ability to respond in a pandemic," said Turpel-Lafond, who recently wrote a paper looking at the implications of limited rights for Indigenous people during a pandemic.

Chief Slett says, regardless, her community will uphold Heiltsuk laws and leadership.

"We will stand behind our decisions and we will do everything we can to protect our community, under our own laws," Slett said.

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Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?