First Nations respond quickly to crisis

While provincial and federal governments try to address the broad needs of Canadians, First Nations leaders on Vancouver Island are working quickly to meet the needs specific to their communities.

In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating existing inequalities affecting First Nations communities, many of which are already dealing with overcrowded housing, boil-water advisories and low incomes.

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Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour said while the number of nearby cases remains low, he’s concerned about the virus arriving in the community, where crowded homes are common.

“When I look at how severe this pandemic is, the fear of this spreading through my community — that fear is very high,” he said.

One of the main challenges for residents has been putting food on the table, because many people access a local food bank that has had to close, Seymour said. Students would also normally receive breakfast and lunch through the school district. “So what do these kids do now, because schools are all closed?” Seymour said.

The council is working on getting fruits and vegetables to people, and fishery staff are looking at what they have available to distribute.

Seymour said the cultural season for community memorials was just winding down when restrictions on the size of gatherings was implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The memorials in the nation’s longhouses are held four years after someone passes away and up to 1,500 can attend, he said.

“They’re very important to our way of life. It’s something that’s been in place since time immemorial,” Seymour said. “I look at it as the end of our grieving period.”

Residents will have to wait even longer now to have that closure.

Seymour said staff are working on a plan to determine how to respond to the crisis, which he expects to be ready this week.

In Huu-ay-aht First Nations, council moved quickly to provide $500 in emergency financial aid to all of their roughly 850 citizens, including those who live in urban areas.

“Most of our people live paycheque to paycheque, so we had to come out really quickly to help,” said chief councillor Robert Dennis.

“We’ve already had inquiries of other citizens needing to meet rent or mortgage payments because their average income is way below the average [Canadian] income. So they need it more urgently than the average Canadian.”

The nation has declared a state of emergency and formed a task force to identify and respond to needs as they arise. Dennis said they’re worried about the virus entering the community and are asking visitors to the remote area to stay out of the village.

The nation is also providing food packages to those who live in the village in order to cut down on trips in and out of the community for essentials.

Ahousaht First Nation is taking similar actions to provide food to members while minimizing the number of outings to nearby Tofino.

Elected chief Greg Louie said the nation is bringing large food shipments in each week to distribute to families. In order to ensure appropriate physical-distancing measures, they’ve split the community of about 1,000 people into sections and they broadcast over radio when it’s time for each section to visit the distribution area.

Their emergency operating centre tracks everyone who comes and goes from the community, which is accessible only by boat.

“We’ve made a cleaning solution for each boat, so every time they come into the harbour, after the passengers are off, they clean the boat, wipe the boat down,” Louie said. “And when they return, same thing, they wipe the boat down.”

Their leadership team is also prioritizing checking in on members’ mental health after noticing that anxiety, social isolation and depression are growing within the community.

“We’re a very social community … and there’s always activities that are that are going on,” he said.

Having to self-isolate and stay on the island is causing anxiety and depression for some people, Louie said.

“I was asking our team to start to reach out to these people.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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