North Cowichan leaders condemn racist posts as Cowichan Tribes face virus outbreak

Cowichan Tribes, North ­Cowichan and other members of the Cowichan Leadership Group are standing together to condemn racism and call for unity as the First Nation faces a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are sickened at the ­racist response of some members of this community towards ­Cowichan Tribes members after hearing the news that there are COVID cases on the reserve,” the group said in a statement issued Monday.

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Some anonymous online messages urged off-reserve employers to fire First Nations staff if they deal with the public. One woman said a dental appointment was postponed when the office learned she lived on the reserve.

Cowichan Tribes has issued a shelter in place order in effect until Jan. 22. Other restrictions include limiting events and putting up barriers regulating access to the reserve.

As of Monday, there were 70 confirmed cases, with six classified as recovered, Cowichan Tribes Coun. Stephanie Atleo said in an interview.

Some Cowichan Tribes members have faced discrimination when they go out for essentials or are doing their daily business, she said. “Being a member of council, I get those messages so I’m aware that it’s happening.”

At work, some members have been asked about where they live. “So that’s concerning because our members need to work so there is that fear of ­losing their employment while we are under this order.”

She’s been told that some ­customers will avoid tills staffed by a First Nations member.

Cowichan Tribes acted quickly to limit the spread when the first cases showed up at the start of year, she said.

“It saddens me that our communities are being judged because COVID has made it into our nations,” she wrote on Facebook.

During the past 10 months, “not once during this did we look at every non-Indigenous person and assume you had COVID. … Not once did we comment on any news article about the spread and say: ‘Oh those ‘white’ people are spreading it on the Island.’ ”

The regional leadership group said: “We have so many familial ties across this community; whatever is going on in one of our communities affects all of us. We must not tolerate racism, and we all have to play an active role to stop racist words and behaviour.

“Start by questioning your own assumptions. If you hear or see others engage in racism online or in person, speak up, and support others who speak up too.”

The group consists of ­Cowichan Tribes Chief William Seymour, mayors of Duncan, North Cowichan, Ladysmith, and Lake Cowichan, B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau, Alistair MacGregor, the MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, as well as officials from the RCMP, Cowichan Valley School District , Island Health, and Vancouver Island University.

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring distributed his own letter via Facebook on the weekend, denouncing “vile” and “racist” posts, which he said are based on fear.

Cowichan Tribes has been open about the number of cases it has on the reserve, only to see racist rhetoric, he said.

Siebring said that part of the response is due to the province not releasing case numbers in specific communities. “I don’t know how many cases I had in North Cowichan. We don’t know how many cases are in Duncan or Saanich, right?

He has not received racist posts directly, but has seen them on online sites. His letter has drawn hundreds of comments supporting Cowichan Tribes and backing his call for unity and kindness.

Cowichan Tribes member Jared Qwustenuxun Williams said: “I’d like my friends, relatives, and allies, to step up and help us all out by not standing for this COVID-19 race-shaming that’s taking place. If you see it happening, step up and stop it.”

The world is like a river and we each are drops of water, he said. “If we’re all going in the same direction, those who oppose us can’t help but follow us off the waterfall. To a world where we can leave this hate behind us.”

Premier John Horgan posted a Twitter message, saying: “The hate targeted at Cowichan Tribes members is disgusting and has no place in our province. We must always stand up against any form of racism.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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