Some tourists ignore Haida Nation pleas to stay away during Covid-19 pandemic

Haida Gwaii has long been a tourism hotspot in Canada but the nation is asking people to stop coming to visit the islands right now - in an effort to protect citizens from the spread of COVID-19.

Raven Ann Potschka says people continue to arrive in Haida Gwaii to take vacations

Haida Gwaii is a world famous tourism destination. In 2016, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the islands and were taken out in a canoe with citizens of the Haida Nation. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Tourists continue to visit Haida Gwaii despite pleas for them to stop. 

Haida Gwaii has long been a tourism hotspot in Canada but the Haida Nation has asked people to stop visiting right now, in an effort to protect citizens from the spread of COVID-19. The First Nations Health Authority also advises against any unnecessary travel. 

But some people are ignoring the commands. 

"People are still coming over on the ferry, to come over for their spring break vacation," said Raven Ann Potschka, a Haida woman from Old Massett. "I just think it's really selfish," said Potschka, noting there are limited health resources on the islands. 

Haida leadership started last week asking its own residents — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — to avoid any unnecessary trips off-island. 

Now they're asking tourists to stay away, too, "to protect Island citizens, and especially our cherished Elders, language speakers and knowledge holders," the Council of the Haida Nation wrote in a press release Wednesday. 

The Haida Nation is one of many First Nations in B.C. taking measures to restrict outsiders from coming into their territory during this pandemic. 

Potschka said she appreciates the stance Haida leadership is taking, and reiterated that tourists who continue showing up need to know they're not welcome right now. 

"We have two small hospitals, but we're very limited in the kind of life support we can offer and there's only a limited amount of beds," she said.

Raven Ann Potschka is concerned about tourists who continue to show up in Haida Gwaii for vacations. (Raven Ann Potschka)

Physicians working on the islands have made clear to residents that everyone needs to work together to prevent the spread of the virus by social distancing, self isolation, washing hands and limiting how many people they visit at one time.

The physicians said in a press release: "If we let the virus spread the way it has in other places, we would expect well over 400 people here to be sick enough to need to be in hospital."

The release went on to say that most of the 12 acute care beds are already occupied and the hospitals only have two ventilators. 

The First Nations Health Authority said there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a B.C. First Nation as of Thursday. 

Still, people like Potschka are feeling uneasy about the potential for the virus to show up in her community. She said some people who have traveled away and come home are self-isolating to ensure they're not infected but the continued movement of people is unsettling. 

"We already have a lot of Elders passing away, and we don't want to compromise their health and their well being for something that can be preventable," she said. 

Without question, outside traffic will be reduced to Haida Gwaii in the coming days. Air Canada is suspending flights from Vancouver to Sandspit from March 23 - April 30.

Pacific Coastal Airlines, which flies from Vancouver to Masset announced on Thursday it would also suspend all flights from March 25 - May 2. 

However, B.C. Ferries service from Prince Rupert to Skidegate is operating as scheduled for the time being. 

Deborah Marshall, a spokesperson for B.C. Ferries, said in an emailed statement: "We are working with the provincial government and Emergency Management BC regarding the COVID-19 situation."

She said B.C. Ferries has not been instructed to limit who is able to travel on their routes. 

When it comes to residents who might be returning to the islands via ferry or plane, Haida leadership is asking those people to self-isolate for 14 days and to monitor for any potential COVID-19 symptoms.

with files from Betsy Trumpener