Cowichan Tribes still facing racism in wake of COVID-19 outbreak

The chief of the Cowichan Tribes says his members and other Indigenous people continue to be subjected to racism and refused service by some local businesses following a COVID-19 outbreak on the reserve.

Chief William Seymour said in an interview Saturday that he’s had a number of complaints from community members who have been turned away by stores or who were unable to get food delivered to the reserve.

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“We go into stores or restaurants here and we get the usual health questions: ‘Have you been out of the country? Do you have cold symptoms?’ You know all those questions.

“But when they come out, and the first thing they say is, ‘Are you a Cowichan Tribes member?’ And if you are, flat out refusal. There’s no health question. So I consider that racist. You’re singling out a single race. “

Seymour has issued a joint letter with the mayors of Duncan and North Cowichan calling on Cowichan Valley businesses to educate themselves about the outbreak and the shelter-in-place order that remains in effect on the reserve to limit the spread of the virus.

Seymour said people seem to be under the impression that the order imposed a total lockdown on the reserve, whereas residents are permitted to leave their homes for essential reasons, including work, school, medical appointments, obtaining groceries, medicines and other essential items, or to care for a family member who is ill.

Others are allowed on the reserve for urgent repairs, to deliver goods or to provide emergency services.

“It’s not about locking everybody in and everybody out,” he said.

Seymour states in his joint letter that even people who do not live on the reserve and those who are not members of the Cowichan Tribes have been refused service.

“These reports are confirmation that citizens are being singled out based on race,” he said.

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring, who spoke out against racism in a Facebook post two weeks ago, says he’s “dumbfounded” that such incidents are continuing to happen.

He argues that Cowichan Tribes is being unfairly targeted for disclosing the number of cases on the reserve, while similar numbers are unavailable for other communities.

“It creates a focus where people go, ‘Oh, COVID is on the reserve.’ Yeah, it is, but you know what? COVID is everywhere. We just don’t know, because they’re not telling us how much of it is elsewhere,” he said.

“So, it creates kind of an unlevel playing field. The Tribes is being transparent and this is how they’re being rewarded. It’s crazy.”

Siebring said everybody needs to be treated the same way. It’s fair for businesses to ask people whether they have travelled outside the country or have flu-like symptoms, he said.

“But it’s not legitimate to say, ‘Oh, you look like somebody that belongs to the Cowichan Nation, so we’re not going to let you in.’ That’s not legitimate at all.”

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples called it “appalling and disappointing” that such indicents are continuing to happen and called on her community to stand up against racism.

“There is no room for it in Cowichan,” she stated in the joint letter. “Racism does not deserve a home here and it is up to each of us to not give it one.”

Staples said in an interview that, rather than being a target for racism, the Cowichan Tribes should be celebrated for its response to COVID-19 and its efforts to have community elders vaccinated.

“They’re demonstrating to us, through this whole thing, what it actually means to live together and take care of each other,” she said. “There’s a lot that we can all learn from that.”

The Cowichan Intercultural Society has organized a car rally and virtual anti-racism panel Sunday in support of the Cowichan Tribes. B.C. Green Party Leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau will moderate the panel discussion. Details can be found on the society’s Facebook page.

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