B.C. First Nation faces COVID 19 outbreak; community leaders issue racism warnings

VICTORIA — A First Nations community on Vancouver Island hard hit by COVID-19 is facing intolerance from some members of the surrounding community while it fights to contain the outbreak.

Cowichan Tribes general manager Derek Thompson said Tuesday some people within his Duncan-area First Nation have experienced discrimination in the community since COVID-19 cases were first reported this month.

Thompson said there were no COVID-19 cases among their members for the first 10 months of the pandemic, but that has increased to 73 people since Jan. 1.

He said intolerance and racism toward Cowichan Tribes people increased immediately following the nation’s public disclosure of the positive cases in their community.

“Not a second later once COVID-19 ran in our community, the racist remarks and discriminatory actions started to take shape in the Duncan and Cowichan Tribes community,” Thompson said in an interview.

He said he is disappointed with the response of some community members.

“Whether it’s pre-COVID or mid-COVID or post-COVID, that kind of racism, discrimination, is always disheartening,” said Thompson.

Some of the racist and intolerant actions included anonymous online messages urging local businesses not to serve Indigenous customers, said Green party Leader Sonia Furstenau, who represents part of the Duncan area in B.C.’s legislature.

“There have been comments made on Facebook that are racist, that Cowichan Tribes members have indicated that they’ve experienced racism when they go into a business or into town,” she said.

Furstenau and North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring denounced what they say are disappointing and racist behaviours of some people toward the Cowichan Tribe members.

Siebring posted a statement online last weekend saying he is dismayed at the “vile” and “fear-based” comments being made about the COVID-19 outbreak within the Cowichan Tribes.

“Folks, we are better than this,” he said. “And it has to stop. This virus is no respecter of persons or race. It does not discriminate. And neither should we.”

Siebring could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

Thompson said the First Nation has issued a stay-at-home order for tribal members until Jan. 22 in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It gives the chief and council that confidence and ability to respond to ensure the safety and health of our members in our jurisdiction,” he said.

Cowichan Tribes is the largest single band in B.C. with about 4,900 members.

Thompson said it will begin administering 600 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to elders on Wednesday.

Furstenau said the ongoing pandemic has caused tension in many people’s lives, but that should not give people the right to mistreat others.

“COVID-19 keeps showing us, keeps shining a light on how deep those issues are, and it’s our responsibility now to lean into reducing those inequalities that exist,” she said.

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