How First Nations are finding ways to keep COVID-19—and outsiders—at bay

While local and provincial governments loosen lockdowns, vulnerable Indigenous communities across the country say they’re fighting an uphill battle to safeguard their residents

Members of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation oversee a checkpoint near Stony Plain, Alta. (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Members of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation oversee a checkpoint near Stony Plain, Alta.
(Photograph by Amber Bracken)

On April 27, the Nuxalk First Nation, nestled in British Columbia’s Bella Coola Valley, simply stopped asking. Five weeks earlier, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the chief and council had declared a local state of emergency and set up a checkpoint on the only highway into the valley to restrict non-essential traffic. Like many remote and coastal communities in the province, and as one known for its salmon fishing, the Nuxalk are wary of the risk of infection that comes with tourists visiting their territory.

They had no idea that over the next few days the B.C. government would declare fishing and hunting essential services in the province, effectively opening the door to travel in their territory. While B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation insists that the province respects First Nations’ states of emergency and travel bans, it would not issue orders affecting travel in and out of these communities.

Instead of turning visitors away from the territory, Nuxalk watchmen and hereditary chiefs merely tracked traffic on the provincial highway into the valley, asking returning residents to self-isolate and urging tourists to reconsider their trips. That was until an outbreak swept into Alert Bay, an island community off Vancouver Island’s northeast coast, and claimed the life of a ‘Namgis Nation woman on April 24—the province’s first COVID-19 casualty in a First Nations community.

READ: Canada’s dire need for better race-based health data

The ripples were felt up and down the coast. Three days later, Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and elected council members, led by Chief Councillor Wally Webber, unanimously ordered their own lockdown of the Bella Coola Valley and issued a public notice: from then on, visitors and tourists would be turned away at the checkpoint 80 km outside town; residents who left the valley for non-medical or non-essential purposes risked being locked out upon return. “To watch other [First] Nations, or other people, getting the virus and going ‘Holy crap’—it’s just unreal,” Webber says. “It shows us that we really have to start protecting our people.”

While local and provincial governments loosen lockdowns and restart economies, vulnerable Indigenous communities across the country say they’re fighting an uphill battle to safeguard their residents. Though few have been exposed to the pathogen—sometimes by dint of the isolation that makes them medically vulnerable—they feel that the interests of their communities are not top of mind for the leaders guiding the rest of the country through the pandemic. Some voice a sense of outright neglect on the part of the provinces and Ottawa, and are taking an increasingly active hand to protect their people—even if public health measures lie outside their jurisdictions.

The frustration runs especially high on remote First Nations, where leaders are making common cause—and sometimes butting heads—with non-Indigenous communities. In April, more than a dozen First Nations and municipalities from B.C.’s north and central coasts penned an open letter urging the B.C. government to restrict non-essential travel to their territories. The combination of warming weather and an urge to escape weeks of lockdown, they warned, was bound to beckon visitors to enjoy sanctioned hunting and fishing; with them would come the threat of infection to remote communities that have not yet been exposed to it. But according to the signatories, that call for help went unanswered. An April 30 press release from the Council of the Haida Nation claimed that, more than three weeks on, they’d received no indication that they’d get the support they were seeking.

Transportation Minister Claire Trevena eventually responded to the letter on May 5, government officials say, highlighting measures to reduce non-essential traffic to the coastal regions, such as posting highway signs to discourage visits, screening passengers on B.C. ferries and tasking ferry terminal staff with warning travellers of lockdowns. But, while the minister’s response recognized the communities’ concerns, it added: “We need to leave our ferries and roads open for essential travel.”

READ: The coronavirus could decimate small and isolated communities in Nunavut

Webber, one of the signatories of the letter, says the province is sending a potentially deadly mixed message by advising the public to stay home while granting permission to fish, hunt and travel around First Nation territories. A housing shortage in the village of Bella Coola, part of which lies within Nuxalk reserve land, has led to overcrowding, he notes, with anywhere from five to 15 people occupying a single home, making community spread almost impossible to control if a carrier gets past their checkpoint or alights on their shore. “They’re holding a gun to our heads by allowing people to come in here,” he says.

Those fears are by no means restricted to remote First Nations. Leaders of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, headquartered less than an hour’s drive northwest of Edmonton, closed their borders to outsiders in late March, creating a system of passes for essential workers and permanent residents to come and go. Mohawk communities at the confluence of Ontario, Quebec and New York state have introduced similar controls, or set up mobile clinics so residents don’t have to go to nearby cities to get tested. In almost every region of the country, Indigenous leaders have been on a crash course about how the virus spreads, scrambling to adapt prevention measures to the circumstances of their communities.

Housing is just one of the common risk factors making First Nations particularly vulnerable. Others, says Anna Banerji, an infectious disease and public health specialist at the University of Toronto, include higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, malnutrition and poverty.

READ: How Canada’s fight to flatten the curve is going

Banerji is heading up an online petition urging the federal government to give Indigenous communities enhanced health care, as well as testing and outbreak control. Health factors aside, she says, First Nations in isolated areas are particularly at risk because they often lack access to infrastructure and health-care resources to manage the disease. The petition calls for, among other things, rapid testing kits, the construction of field hospitals and temporary quarantine housing, and for Ottawa to enlist support from the Canadian Forces, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross. “I get emails on a regular basis from chiefs saying, ‘We are scared,’ ” Banerji says. “If an outbreak occurs, then many people are getting sick at once, and if you don’t have capacity to put them on a ventilator, these people will die.”

In mid-April, the federal government pledged $305 million to help First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities respond to the pandemic. But for Canada’s 634 First Nations, which includes 96 fly-in communities, that’s simply not enough, says Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. “Those dollars were spent on supplying food to the most vulnerable, to the elders, to the people that are staying in their homes, to supplying personal protective equipment,” Bellegarde says. He highlights the need to address the cost and challenges of transportation—specifically for fly-in communities like those in Nunavut (though as of late May the territory had yet to report any confirmed cases). “Will the federal government or provincial governments cover the cost of transportation if you have to medevac people out of the communities?” he asks. “Because there are no hospitals. There are health clinics, and a lot of times they are understaffed.”

More than just financial support, Bellegarde is calling for the inclusion of First Nations in the development of pandemic plans, which he says is lacking: “It’s not just a federal government or provincial governments in Canada. There’s the original governments of this land and there’s a separate jurisdiction that needs to be respected and included going forward.”


For the Heiltsuk Nation, on an island west of Bella Coola, a seat at the table begins with disclosure—specifically the location of positive COVID-19 cases. Currently, B.C. identifies only the health region where patients live. Campbell Island’s Bella Bella, home to about 1,400 Heiltsuk, falls under the purview of Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which serves 1.25 million people—about a quarter of the province’s population—and includes residents of Vancouver, Richmond and the North Shore. While Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, has said that information is at the heart of public health (specifically, “knowing what our risks are, where they are coming from and who is affected”), she also maintains that flagging affected communities can stigmatize those associated with them, and cast a false sense of security on those who aren’t. Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett can’t help but highlight an uncomfortable irony: “Our communities live under stigma every day.”

So far, Heiltsuk Nation, like the Nuxalk, has managed to avoid infection. But Slett sees the secrecy around confirmed cases as a slight to the First Nation on two levels: not only does it leave the community’s emergency response team working in the dark, it effectively snubs an Indigenous government that has existed for about 700 generations. “It blindfolds our people,” Slett says. “I know they’ve got these blanket policies, but we are unique, and we have a different history, so we do need to take a look at it through our lenses. We need to make sure that we’re also protected.”

Kanesatake, west of Montreal, closed businesses in its territory in March to discourage visitors (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Kanesatake, west of Montreal, closed businesses in its territory in March to discourage visitors (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Without a provincial restriction on travel to the region, or any other way to keep out visitors to the remote island community, the Heiltsuk passed a bylaw banning travel to and from its traditional territory. But such bans are only as good as their wording, and the authorities’ ability to enforce them. In more populous southern Quebec—one of the few places where in-province travel bans were put in place—First Nations have taken extra steps to keep away non-essential traffic. About an hour’s drive west of Montreal, the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake sought in March to deter visitors by closing businesses in the territory—a magnet for residents of surrounding communities looking to buy cannabis and bargain-priced tobacco.

Quebec’s regional travel rules nevertheless allowed Montrealers and travellers from surrounding municipalities to venture on to Kanesatake territory, which led the council to set up checkpoints near its entrances to shut out visitors. Says Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon: “We know it’s going to come in. But is it going to come in unopposed, and like a wave with community spread? Or are we going to put up a fight and make sure that it comes in small and manageable cases?”

Putting that idea into action, however, was less simple than it sounds. Kanesatake territory includes dozens of land lots located within the nearby village of Oka. To protect Mohawk families living there, the Kanesatake also installed checkpoints outside the village. If a non-resident approaches, Simon says, “We tell them, ‘No, if you don’t have an address around here, turn around and go home.’ ” In response, Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon filed complaints with Quebec’s provincial police and ministry of transportation, while threatening legal action against the council. On social media, Quevillon called the checkpoints unacceptable, claiming they threatened the town’s economy as the province is in the midst of reopening for business.

Although sympathetic to the plight of the local economy and businesses crippled by ordered closures, Simon says his priority is ensuring the health and safety of the entire community, which he doubts will be possible until there’s a vaccine against the coronavirus. “We know we’ll have to adapt,” Simon says. “Right now we survive, and then we look at the [province’s reopening] plan.” In the meantime, his worries increasingly run beyond matters of physical health. Most of the roughly 60 fluent speakers of the Mohawk language left in the community, he notes, are elders who may be susceptible to the pathogen. “If we lose these elders,” he says, “our language goes along with them.


Back in B.C., tensions seem to be running at a lower ebb between the Nuxalk, the provincial government and non-Indigenous residents. Hereditary Chief Mike Tallio says all but a few drivers have co-operated with guards who staff the checkpoint outside Bella Coola, noting: “We’ve had a couple of people run through our checkpoint at high speeds.” So far, he adds, no one has been hurt, and after the checkpoint has been breached, the Nuxalk contact the RCMP to track down the culprits. “We want to make sure they are looked into, to see why they are putting people in danger,” he says.

Meanwhile, on May 22, Webber and Slett finally received an audience with members of the B.C. cabinet, along with Henry, the provincial health officer, in a conference call that included community leaders from the province’s north and central coast. A statement from Scott Fraser, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous affairs and reconciliation, recognized the “specific needs and unique circumstances” of Indigenous and remote communities responding to the pandemic, and committed to regular dialogue with them as reopening continues. Still, for the time being, the province will continue to permit hunting and fishing so long as the public follows provincial health orders and guidelines, as well as band council resolutions and travel advisories. “This means hunters and fishers should respect checkpoints and comply with restrictions unless providing services at the request of the First Nation community,” a government spokesperson says.

While long overdue, Slett says, the meeting offered a starting point for better communication. Meantime, for both the Nuxalk and Heiltsuk, the travel restrictions and checkpoints remain essential until those nations feel safe again. Short of expressing concern in “moderate dialogue,” says Slett, “there’s not a lot that we can do.”

This article appears in print in the July 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The struggle for self-isolation.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.