An open letter written by Wet’suwet’en Ts’ako ze’ (female chiefs) is being backed by 400 health care workers in B.C. calling on the province to close work camps during the pandemic.
A letter addressed to Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer on Dec. 16, 2020, penned by Dr. Bilal Bagha, was signed by more than 650 people.
“We unequivocally support the recommendations of the Wet’suwet’en Ts’ako ze’ and Skiy ze’ 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.”
The online support follows the release of a letter by Wet’suwet’en female leadership.
On Nov. 30, Wet’suwet’en Ts’ako ze’ (female chiefs) and Skiyze’ (children and upcoming chiefs) wrote to Henry, about their concerns around the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
“We are writing to you with grave concern over the continuation of local Coastal GasLink (CGL) work and man camps in our territories, in the communities of Burns Lake (C’ilhts’ëkhyu Clan territory), Huckleberry Camp near Houston (on Gidimt’en Clan territory) and camp 9A (on Unist’ot’en territory),” the open letter says.
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).”
At this point, there has been no known spread to community in relation to these cases.
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.
“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.
‘Impacts are life and death’
The Wet’suwet’en Nation, divided into 5 clans and 13 house groups, has never surrendered nor ceded its traditional lands. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the nation’s existing Aboriginal Title in a case famously known as ‘Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.’
CGL’s project in question is a 670 km pipeline stretching across northern B.C. and through Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.
The pipeline has been opposed for as long as it has been proposed, primarily by hereditary leadership, while it has been supported by elected leadership, with band councils giving government and industry the green light, creating a fierce divide between community members.
Those who stand against the pipeline and the camps that house the oil and gas workers, flag environmental degradation as a primary concern, as well as the violation of inherent, internationally and constitutionally protected rights.
While Wet’suwet’en leadership, community members and supporters have occupied and defended their territories with checkpoints, rallies and negotiations for the last decade, stand-offs with the government and RCMP escalated over the past three years.
But while hereditary leadership continues to oppose the project, another concern the community has faced during 2020 has been the ongoing activity in the project’s work camps, and the risk that has posed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bagha, a family medicine resident in the Indigenous Health Program in Victoria, says he believes in the public health of all communities and for Indigenous communities to be able to have decision making over their traditional territories.
“The resources in Northern Health are allocated to support the population living in Northern Health, but now you have industrial workers coming in from all over the country,” he says.
“The impacts are life and death.”
As a healthcare worker, Bagha says he feels a responsibility to speak out, particularly when public health care issues are at stake.
“The economy cannot come before Indigenous lives,” states the letter addressed to Henry.
“The protocols in place do not protect our most vulnerable communities; and lastly, our Houses and Clans have a right and responsibility to make decisions about what happens on our territories.”
As the country enters into a new wave and the second year of the ongoing pandemic, Bagha remains concerned about the implications of the government’s decision to shut down some areas of work, while allowing others to remain.
“We’re basically at the worst that we’ve been in terms of the situation through the pandemic,” he says. “Not only for the communities themselves, [but] there’s impacts of serious illness or death. There’s impacts of cultural loss, language loss, loss of traditional knowledge. There’s the mental health issues of it.”
There have been multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at various sites, including two at CGL workforce accommodation sites at 7 Mile Lodge in the Burns Lake Local Health Area (LHA), 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.
Indigenous communities have experienced past pandemics, Bagha says, which has added another “retraumatizing” impact as they continue to grapple to keep people safe and push the government to consider the work camps “non-essential.”
‘Their work more important than our lives’
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’s 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,” Wickham says.
“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.”
Bagha agrees with Wickham, saying work camps have been linked to the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two Spirit people.
‘Increased rate of violence’
According to the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the influx of people “near or within Indigenous, remote and rural communities results in stress on already limited social infrastructure, such as policing, health, and mental health services.”
“Work camps, or “man camps,” associated with the resource extraction industry are implicated in higher rates of violence against Indigenous women at the camps and in the neighbouring communities,” the report states.
“This increased rate of violence is largely the result of the migration into the camps of mostly non-Indigenous young men with high salaries and little to no stake in the host Indigenous community.”
On Dec. 23 Henry 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,” she states.
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.
“This increase has resulted in increased numbers of clusters of people with COVID-19, outbreaks of COVID-19, the transmission of COVID-19 to surrounding communities, including Indigenous communities, increasing the risk of hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, and deaths in the Northern Health Authority region,” the new order states.
“The order outlines significant restrictions on the number of workers permitted across five major industrial projects in the north for the early part of 2021,” says a CGL spokesman.
But while Henry has been engaged in discussions with CGL, Wickham says they haven’t received any response.
“It’s a major disrespect to the lives of Wet’suwet’en people, and their future generations,” Wickham says. “She hasn’t responded to us at all. We have no information about what’s happening.”
IndigiNews reached out to Henry, B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix, and B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin, but did not receive a response in time for the publication of this article.
“If we lose one out there, one language speaker, that whole family, that whole house group, that whole clan, it impacts them for generations to come,” Wickham says. “We have such little left already.”
With files from Emilee Gilpin