Cowichan Tribes members share stories of COVID-19-related racism

Here are three Quw’utsun teachings to help get all of us through this crisis.

As many know by now, the coronavirus has reached the good people of Cowichan Tribes, the Quw’utsun Mustimuhw. To best deal with the outbreak, our tribal leadership issued a shelter-in-place order for residents of reserve land after the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) released the initial number.

Our community is on near-lockdown status and roadblocks have been set up at the entrance to our reserves. No one anticipated that on top of the flood and the virus, that the Quw’utsun Mustimuhw would have to deal with racist backlash related to their reported COVID-19 numbers.

And while many of the local leaders and news outlets have spoken out against the COVID-related racism, I would like to share some of the direct stories of the experiences our people have faced in the past few days.

I asked the Quw’utsun community if anyone was willing to share their experience with me and I got many stories, some of which are hard to share.

cowichan tribes covid
Signs are in place to remind both Quw’utsun, and the broader hwulunitum community, of the edges of the reserves and the restrictions taking place within. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

My sqe’uq Kathy Williams-Parkinson shared her story with me. She said, “I recently bought a home in Chemainus, and scheduled for the TELUS installation. When the technician called me the morning of the installation he had pre-screening COVID-19 questions. They all seemed standard and inclusive, until one question was, ‘Have you been in contact with any Cowichan Tribes band members?’ I was flabbergasted at the question when I heard it.”

She continued on to say, “I have received personal telephone calls from two TELUS managers, who are the regional and Vancouver Island representatives. They both apologized for my experience, and ensured that they will use this as a learning tool for their employees moving forward.”

I can’t help but feel uncomfortable that this racist act is simply a learning tool, but I digress. I have also heard from many community members about other appointments with professionals being altered or cancelled due to such discriminatory reasons as mentioned above.

The Discourse reached out to TELUS for a response to this incident and received the following statement, attributed to Tony Geheran, TELUS Chief Customer Officer:

“Since March, our technicians have asked customers to complete a COVID-19 screening questionnaire to help protect our customers and team members. Recently, a technician completing this process with a customer added a question that was discriminatory and not part of our standard questionnaire and was wrong to do so. 

“We are taking this very seriously. Our first priority was to speak with the customer involved to understand the situation, and to sincerely apologize. We have also engaged Cowichan Tribes leadership and would like to have a dialogue with them about the steps we are taking to further educate our team members. TELUS has a responsibility to ensure the safety of all TELUS customers, and we are committed to engaging with the community in a respectful and meaningful dialogue to continue learning and to ensure this does not happen again.”

The discrimination doesn’t end with business; it has boiled over to personal and public interactions. My shuyulh, Lena Seward, told me about her encounter while at a local veterinarian office. She mentioned that she was masked up and had a chance conversation with a woman who was also at the vet’s office, when the conversation went south. Lena recalls that the woman, “made small talk about the traffic, it was close to four on Thursday.”

My shuyulh jested that, “you wouldn’t think we had a pandemic going on.” The woman then said that she wants “her daughter to pull her grand kids from school because it’s full of those dirty Indians,” Lena recalls. That was when my shuyulh, Lena, pulled her mask down and revealed that she is a Cowichan member. In the style of our Cowichan teachings, my shuyuh did not retaliate, instead she offered her most sincere apology on behalf of her people, the Cowichan people. The woman was absolutely shocked, Lena says.

Later that day Lena took to Facebook to make this statement: “Just because I am Cowichan does not mean I have COVID, nor does it mean I can’t go to work and my kids can’t go to school. I have been following all the rules because I have an example to set for my kids. I wear my mask in all public places. I don’t visit or hang out with family and friends and family and friends don’t come to my home. Just because a small percentage of Cowichan members have tested positive doesn’t mean we all have it!”

cowichan tribes covid
The most powerful thing I’ve heard about these new barricades is that they will let everyone know that they are on reserve. Cowichan has not defined our borders so visibly before. Photo by Jared Qwustenuxun Williams

The above examples are not by any means acceptable, but I was absolutely appalled by the story I heard from Cowichan Elder Laura Antoine. Laura told me, “I was at the lotto spot getting my hubby’s tickets verified, and getting his free tickets and small wins. While I was there one of two older Caucasian people, who stood behind me in line, started mumbling under their breath, ‘stupid Indian she should stay home.’ The second old lady got angry and started yelling obscenities. The lotto worker said, ‘just never mind them.’ My hubby always buys lotto tickets there, so why should we not return them there?!” This is one of our elders, and this is how they were treated.

These are only three examples of COVID-related racism that directly affected Quw’utsun Mustimuhw. There are many more. It’s hard enough that hwulmuhw people are dealing with ongoing poverty, an opioid crisis, a rising river, and now COVID in our community. Let’s not subject them to racism at the same time. Let us take the Quw’utsun Snuw’uy’ulh and put it into practice. We can start with these three important teachings. Remember, you don’t have to know how to pronounce it in order to practice it, I promise.

Hiiye’yutul tst ’u to’ mukw’ stem ’i ’u tuna’ mukw’.
Everything in nature is part of our family; we are all family.

Tl’i’ to’ mukw’ mustimuhw.
Each person is important.

And last, but perhaps most importantly:

Hwial’asmut ch tun’ s-ye’lh.
Take care of your health.

Thank you for taking the time to read about what is taking place in the Cowichan community amidst this COVID crisis, and I raise my hands to all those who help us fight this racism and make this a better, more unified, world.

Huy tseep q’u siem ni siiye’yu, huy tseep q’u,
Thank you my respected friends, thank you,

Qwustenuxun, grandson of Qwustanulwut [end]

Hul’qumi’num Words

  • mustimuhw – people
  • hwulmuhw – First Nations person
  • hwulunitum – non-First Nations people
  • Quw’utsun – Cowichan
  • shuyulh – older sibling or cousin
  • snuw’uy’ulh – teachings
  • sqe’uq – younger sibling or cousin 

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