An open letter written by female chiefs calling on the province to close work camps during the pandemic is being backed by 400 health-care workers in B.C.
The letter addressed to Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, has been signed by more than 650 people.
“We unequivocally support the recommendations of the Wet'suwet'en Ts'ako ze' (female leaders) and Skiy ze' (children and upcoming chiefs) in their letter to you on the widespread and deadly racism and discrimination experienced by Indigenous peoples in the health-care system in B.C.,'' the letter states.
“As health professionals working on the frontlines, we see first hand the brunt of the devastation caused to communities by the dual public health emergencies of the climate crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, which both disproportionately impact Indigenous communities.''
On Nov. 30, Wet'suwet'en Ts'ako ze' (female leaders) and Skiyze' wrote to Henry, about their concerns around the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
On Dec. 8, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) wrote in support of the Wet'suwet'en Ts'ako ze' and Skiy ze', calling on the province to declare oil and gas workers a non-essential service.
“We are writing to you with grave concern over the continuation of local Coastal GasLink work and man camps in our territories, in the communities of Burns Lake (C'ilhts'ekhyu Clan territory), Huckleberry Camp near Houston (on Gidimt'en Clan territory) and camp 9A (on Unist'ot'en territory),'' according to the letter.
According to a press release on the Unist'ot'en website, at the time, there were “43 confirmed cases of COVID-19 tied to an LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, while Wet'suwet'en have been informed of two confirmed cases, with six individuals in self isolation, at Coastal GasLink's Camp 9A on Unist'ot'en yintah (territory).''
“The work camps on Wet'suwet'en territory house over 700 people and stand to become a hotbed of COVID-19 transmission that will endanger precious lives, including Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and Skiy ze' (children and upcoming chiefs), should oil and gas projects be allowed to continue without respecting the welfare and authority of First Nations,'' wrote UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chief Don Tom and Kikpi7 Judy Wilson.
“The economy cannot come before Indigenous lives,'' states the letter addressed to Henry.
There have been multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at various sites, including two at Coastal GasLink workforce work camps at 7 Mile Lodge in the Burns Lake Local Health Area, and Little Rock Lake Lodge in Nechako LHA.
According to a Dec. 31 update by Northern Health, there have been 53 laboratory-confirmed cases associated with these two lodges, with six active cases, down from the 31 cases reported on Dec. 24.
“Both work sites are limited to essential workers only, to support those in self-isolation and to ensure safe operation of the sites until public health approves updates COVID-19 plans,'' the news release states.
Sleydo' Molly Wickham, the spokesperson for the Gidimt'en checkpoint reoccupation site, is one of the signatories of the letter outlining the dangers of COVID-19 infiltrating their communities.
She said she is concerned about the message of allowing pipeline workers to continue their work, while other jobs, considered ‘non-essential,' have been shut down.
“Their work is more important than our lives, and the lives of our elders, and the importance of our culture, and our language, because that's what's at risk here,'' said Wickham.
“They're taking advantage of the fact that everybody is locked down for COVID. We're taking it very seriously, keeping our community safe.''
Wickham says the companies have exploited the COVID restrictions for their own benefit, continuing work on a pipeline that remains highly controversial throughout the community.
But concerns related to man camps, built to house pipeline workers, are not only about the spread of COVID-19, Wickham says. Man camps perpetuate violence in her communities, she says, with or without a pandemic.
“There's so much risk that comes with having the camps in the territory, especially in rural communities, where we have less resources, less frontline services to support people,'' Wickham says.
“They're taxing on our resources, whether that be health or social services or support, and they're compounding the need for those services, bringing in trucks, bringing in alcohol, bringing in this influx of money, causing all of these social problems.''
On Dec. 23 the B.C. province addressed the outbreaks in industrial camps in the Northern Health region and put in a new order involving “a slower start up phase'' in January 2021.
“We've had challenges in the north, and some of those challenges have been related to outbreaks that we've reported on in a number of the industrial work camps that are in the Northern Health region,'' said Henry.
Henry acknowledged the risks of workers coming “to and from these work camps,'' saying the large movement of people returning to work “means a much higher potential for spread amongst employees, but also into communities along the areas where the industrial camps are in the North.''
Henry says the government is engaged in discussion with major industrial projects, to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
The new order applies to industrial projects in the north, including CGL, mandating that it reduce its number of workers to 400 by Jan. 8, 2021. After Feb. 1, they can increase their workers to 1,000 total.
The order addresses that connection between COVID-19 infection rate increases in the north “associated with large scale industrial projects,'' and the impacts on Indigenous communities.
– Chehala Leonard, local journalism initiative reporter, The Discourse