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Tsilhqot'in call on B.C., Canada to recognize Indigenous jurisdiction amid COVID-19

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — A British Columbia First Nation that won a landmark case establishing rights and title to its territory says ongoing colonialism and systemic racism have hindered its COVID-19 response.

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — A British Columbia First Nation that won a landmark case establishing rights and title to its territory says ongoing colonialism and systemic racism have hindered its COVID-19 response.

The Tsilhqot'in Nation, which won the Supreme Court of Canada case in 2014, has released a report on its experiences during the pandemic that says it struggled to get access to emergency funding, health data and RCMP support.

The report says the provincial and federal governments still treat the nation in a paternalistic manner at times even though its six communities in the B.C. Interior have inherent jurisdiction over their lands.

"There is no other nation in Canada that has proven Aboriginal title and rights," said Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in National Government.

"We've proven that. We don't need anybody holding our hands. Tsilhqot'in problems require Tsilhqot'in solutions."

The document, titled "Dada Nentsen Gha Yatastig," which translates to "I am Going to Tell You About a Very Bad Disease, builds on the recommendations from an earlier report about the nation’s response to devastating 2017 wildfires. 

It says the Tsilhqot'in undertook a rapid and co-ordinated response to the pandemic, including issuing a state of emergency, implementing community bylaws and establishing checkpoints that monitor travel in and out of its communities.

However, the report says the nation grappled with limited resources. It eventually obtained money from Canada-wide COVID-19 funding that addressed basic services, but still left many needs unmet.

Inadequate housing and infrastructure put basic pandemic practices of physical distancing out of reach, with numerous people living in one house and no additional buildings available to allow for self-isolation, it says.

The report also says the province initially did not provide any COVID-19 data to the Tsilhqot'in beyond what was being presented to the general public.

"It is a self-determining nation and wasn't receiving that information in its capacity as a government," said Jocelyn Stacey, an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped produce the report.

"It was relying on the same publicly available information that you and I were."

In response, the province mandated the First Nations Health Authority to receive COVID-19 information. 

The province established a limited data sharing agreement, but the Tsilhqot'in are still calling on B.C. to provide First Nations with the location of cases in neighbouring cities, whether they involve someone who has travelled to their communities in the last 14 days and the names of members who contract COVID-19.

The report also says while the province eventually agreed to reimburse money spent on checkpoints, it came long after they were dismantled due to financial constraints.

It also says enforcement was undermined by difficult relations with the RCMP. While it's a long-term goal to move justice under Tsilhqot'in jurisdiction, at this time communities rely on service agreements with the RCMP. 

However, the report says the RCMP told communities it was the responsibility of band councils to enforce bylaws, including checkpoints. 

The RCMP did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

The report also details how lockdown during the pandemic exacerbated long-standing issues of mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence within the communities.

It makes several recommendations to the B.C. and Canadian governments, including providing enhanced pandemic recovery support to Indigenous Peoples, revising emergency plans to recognize Indigenous jurisdiction and establishing agreements for sharing health data and information on the impacts of COVID-19 on First Nations.

Mike Farnworth, the B.C. minister responsible for emergency preparedness, said there is a lot of valuable information in the report and shows the achievements the province can build upon, including its support for checkpoints and the data-sharing agreement.

"We know we need to continue to sit down together and discuss where things are working and where we need to do better," he said.

Farnworth said the province, federal government and Tsilhqot'in created the first-ever Collaborative Emergency Management Agreement in 2018. The province has renewed the agreement and it allows for ongoing dialogue to advance Indigenous jurisdiction in emergency management, he said.

Indigenous Services Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 18, 2021.

The Canadian Press