VICTORIA — A coalition of First Nations is asking British Columbia's privacy commissioner to compel the Health Ministry to disclose presumptive COVID-19 cases in their communities.
The Heiltsuk, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tsilhqot'in governments said Tuesday they filed the application because the B.C. government refuses to share the information, arguing that poses risk of significant harm to their communities.
Heiltsuk Nation Chief Marilyn Slett said in a statement that having an outbreak before the province will share the information "is reckless and colonial" and goes against the province's promises of reconciliation.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said he met with First Nations leaders on Monday and the ministry has worked with various communities to address matters related to COVID-19 transmission when it occurs.
"There are issues to balance here in terms of people's right to privacy, which is closely connected with their willingness to engage with us in the health-care system," he said.
Similar calls to identify communities with COVID-19 cases have been raised since the beginning of the pandemic by both the Interior Health Authority and the Island Health Authority, Dix said.
"We're just going to continue to work through these issues to ensure that we control the transmission of COVID-19, particularly in Indigenous communities but also in rural and remote communities."
The First Nations said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has acknowledged the unique threat COVID-19 poses to remote Indigenous communities, yet the Health Ministry hasn't explained why presumptive COVID-19 cases don't present a risk to them.
Henry told a news conference Monday that the government has been working on the issue, but she also has a responsibility for the protection of personal health information.
"I will say that in many cases, the community will know before we know when somebody is ill and before they go for testing," Henry said. "Where we get notified is when the tests come back positive."
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is supporting the request. Association president Mike Larson said disclosing the information so the First Nations can conduct contact tracing is in the public interest.
The Health Ministry's policy of disregarding First Nations' efforts to govern during the pandemic is wrong, said Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.
"We must have access to the same health datasets the B.C. government has, on a government-to-government basis, if we are going to get through this pandemic together."
The First Nations said past pandemics, including smallpox and the Spanish flu, have devastated First Nation communities and taken the lives of their elders.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2020.