British Columbia

Tribal council to restrict entry to most of Vancouver Island's west coast until COVID-19 safety conditions met

The tribal council, representing 14 First Nations along 300 kilometres of the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, is calling for more consultation with government and the assured health and safety of members, before welcoming visitors back to their land.

Territory extends 300 km along the west coast of Vancouver Island and includes popular tourist destinations

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council says its territories are home to 14 First Nations and stretch 300 kilometres along the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, from Brooks Peninsula in the north, to Point-No-Point in the south. The full length of Vancouver Island is about 460 kilometres. (Shutterstock / fokke baarssen)

A Vancouver Island First Nation has issued an order aimed at protecting its members from COVID-19, just as the B.C. government is making plans to reopen tourism.

On Tuesday, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), representing 14 First Nations along 300 kilometres of territory, passed a motion prohibiting visitors on Nuu-chah-nulth land until the health and safety of its own members can be guaranteed by the province.

"The head of our communities, our chiefs, our directors, are not feeling comfortable that enough has been done to ensure that the spread of the virus does not happen once everything is opened," said NTC president Judith Sayers on CBC's On The Island Wednesday.

The conditions of the motion include:

  • Having efficient COVID-19 testing in place for all 14 First Nations.
  • Establishing a screening system for non-residents.
  • Implementing contact tracing so members know if they have been exposed.
  • Establishing communication protocols between NTC nations and health authorities for prompt reporting of any suspected or confirmed cases on the Island.

If these conditions are not met, the motion says access to Nuu-chah-nulth Hahuułi (territories) — which includes  the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet — will remain restricted.

"Our leaders have said people come before economics," said Sayers, adding Nuu-chah-nulth communities took incredible precautions to prevent COVID-19 infection and do not want that work undone.

Many people flock to Tofino beaches for summer, sand and surf and the community is on Nuu-chah-nulth territory. (Shutterstock / EB Adventure Photography)

Possible impasse

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Premier John Horgan said he understands the Nuu-chah-nulth people's anxiety.

The premier also said the government is trying to create economic activity so "people can pay their bills and put food on the table".

"If we are going to talk about tourism on one hand and isolation and closing communities on the other, we are going to have an impasse," said Horgan.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation told CBC it is reaching out to Nuu-chah-nulth leadership to discuss their concerns.

"We are committed to working together with Nuu-chah-nulth to ensure everyone's safety and build confidence as we carefully resume travel within the province," said the ministry in a statement.

The statement also said B.C. Parks is working with surrounding communities before reopening provincial parks.

On Friday, Parks Canada said it would continue to co-ordinate the resumption of services in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve with Indigenous partners and respect their concerns about COVID-19.

According to park superintendent Karen Haigen, areas of the park around First Nations communities are currently closed to reduce the possible exposure of community members to visitors.

 Parks Canada has also developed junior guardian programs with two First Nations communities who will let beach-users know not to walk into areas where these communities are located.

Premier John Horgan, in response to the motion passed by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said he understands the anxiety behind it and his government is trying its best to balance public health needs with getting the economy running again. (MIke McArthur/CBC)

Consultation on border control

There are currently no active cases of COVID-19 on Vancouver Island, but the NTC is worried that could change.

The NTC wants the U.S.-Canada border kept closed for the duration of the pandemic and wants to be consulted about when it should reopen, especially, said Sayers, because​​ many Americans travel to the island's west coast.

"The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples talks about free, prior and informed consent, and we think based on health risks that this should happen," said Sayers.

It is unclear how long the border will be closed. The initial agreement was extended in April by 30 days until May 21, before being extended for another 30 days last month.

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, says the council wants to be consulted on conversations about the reopening the U.S.-Canada border. (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council)

CBC requested comment from the federal government about consulting with the NTC on border decisions and was directed to comments made Wednesday by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during a news event.

Freeland said current border arrangements are working well.

"As for the future, let me remind everyone that decisions about our border will always be taken by Canadians in the Canadian national interest," said Freeland.

CBC also requested but did not yet receive, comment from the First Nations Health Authority and the mayors of Tofino and Ucluelet .

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said Wednesday she has reached out to the NTC and local first nations to learn more.

With files from On The Island