Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Two Indigenous leaders in British Columbia are just the latest to speak out against a growing litany of reports about discrimination against their members in nearby communities. And they’re drawing inspiration from their nations’ historic hardships to weather the challenge.
At the root of the issue, said leaders of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government and T’exelcemc First Nation, are racial stereotypes, combined with the fact that many First Nations are publicly releasing their COVID-19 case counts daily, while the province bars municipalities from doing so.
“To hear quite a high number of complaints coming in from our members being denied services because of where they’re from, that’s not right,” said Tŝilhqot’in National Government tribal chairman Joe Alphonse in an interview Tuesday. “A lot of our members don’t even live in the community but elsewhere, and they still get denied.
“You know, if you’re singling out any group of people based on their race, then that’s racism.”
He declined to give more detailed allegations he’d received or any specific businesses named — citing complainants’ confidentiality — but said some but not all related to appointments, such as dental or eye care.
Tŝilhqot’in member nations, including Alphonse’s community of Tl'etinqox-t'in First Nation, have opted to tell their own members about current COVID-19 case numbers. That’s not the case for municipalities, which are barred from releasing data by the province, which until nine months into the pandemic only gave out city-level numbers once a month; starting in December, those are released weekly.
The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, had said there were concerns that individual municipalities’ residents might be singled out for stigma if local data were released frequently, and also emphasized no community in the province is immune from COVID-19; nobody should have “a false sense of security,” Dr. Henry told reporters last May.
“There is no place for racism or discrimination in our province,” she said of the latest allegations of anti-Indigenous discrimination. “We are all experiencing immense challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic and this is especially the case for Indigenous communities.”
Multiple First Nations have bucked her office’s local COVID data policy, however, instead releasing their data as often as daily to warn members of rising transmission. Chief Alphonse said his community peaked at 52 cases, but has now dropped to just four with no new cases in 10 days.
“We’re trying to be transparent with where we are in this pandemic,” he explained. “We only have so many means to deal with issues but we are encouraging people not to visit or go out. But we don’t have our own police force to enforce it.
“One of the only means we have is to educate our members; part of that is releasing the numbers and where we’re at.”
That’s exactly what Chief Willie Sellars did in T’exelcemc (Williams Lake) First Nation, part of the Secwépemc people. They are still undergoing “the tail-end” of an outbreak, he said, including the deaths of several beloved community members, one of them a friend and the son of his mentor.
“This has been the hardest period of my political career,” Sellars told Windspeaker.com. “There’s no community without unity. We truly do believe that.”
That’s why he decided to speak out in solidarity with the Tŝilhqot’in and share similar experiences during the pandemic.
“It was racism at its core, for sure,” said Sellars in an interview Tuesday. “The local municipality isn’t sharing its numbers while you have these First Nations communities sharing our numbers... so it must mean all our members must be infected.
“Local schools were saying, ‘Your kids can’t come to school without a negative COVID test’.”
Both he and Alphonse decried the latest reports this week after new allegations emerged, just months after several grocery stores on Vancouver Island saw almost identical issues, allegedly refusing to serve First Nations residents because they were perceived to be a transmission risk.
Some of those stores had justified their behaviour by claiming they were trying to respect nearby First Nations’ own COVID-19 lockdown measures, but Indigenous people said denying services based on race was never requested nor welcomed by any community.
“I don’t want to call out specific companies, but it's happening,” Alphonse said. “We also understand the pandemic has put a lot of stress and fears into a lot of people, but it’s just not all directed in the right way.
“There’s often a lot of blame and shame; there has to be more understanding during this time. But if we don’t call things out, things will be allowed to fester. We don’t want that either.”
The chair of the nearby Cariboo Regional District, Margo Wagner, condemned the racist incidents, adding her voice to a statement released specifically calling out a series of social media posts falsely accusing “Indigenous peoples being responsible for bringing COVID-19 to the area and spreading it,” the statement read.
Wagner pleaded with the region’s residents to “treat each other with kindness and care,” adding, “Everyone is doing what they can to stop the spread of the virus. Now we must double down on our efforts to stop racism from infecting our community.”
Chief Alphonse said the pandemic lockdown measures are a “small sacrifice” his community is making, and he is heartened to see support between neighbouring regional leaders and other First Nations province-wide.
He said he is inspired by stories of immense sacrifice, leadership and loss during the previous century’s devastating smallpox epidemic. Then, every Tŝilhqot’in clan agreed to split up and go to their own areas of the mountains for a year-long quarantine.
“At the end of that year, they agreed to meet at one location — but only 20 per cent came back,” he said. “When we ask people to isolate themselves for two weeks, that’s really a small sacrifice compared to what our ancestors went through.
“We all have to do our part; we’re like everyone else. We want this pandemic to end.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.