Island tribal nation rallies behind travel restrictions

Joaqlin Estus

The Haida Nation put up roadblocks and is turning back visitors seeking to enter its communities off British Columbia. Members held a rally this week to reinforce the message.

By Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

Updated Wednesday to add comments of the Province of British Columbia

Tribal members on a cluster of islands off British Columbia are stepping up efforts to keep out visitors after the province declared sports hunting and fishing essential activities.

The Haida Nation, one of several Pacific Northwest tribes whose rainy, forested homelands extend from Oregon to southeast Alaska, put up roadblocks about a month ago and has been turning back nonresidents traveling by ferry to Haida Gwaii, or the “Island of the People.”

On Monday, dozens of tribal members turned out for a rally at the roadblocks to reinforce the tribe's stance.

“We want to send a stronger message to the outside world that we're just not welcoming visitors at this point,” said Billy Yovanovich, chief councillor of the Skidegate Band Council. Haida Gwaii has had no confirmed positive cases of COVID-19.

The Haida Nation's position puts it at odds with the British Columbia provincial government, which last week designated sports hunters and fishermen as essential food and agriculture service providers — opening the door for them to travel to Haida Gwaii by ferry. Airlines have halted air service to Haida Gwai until May.

The province's chief medical officer has reminded British Columbians that the “Haida Nation and other first indigenous nations have our own jurisdiction and our own governance,” Haida Nation President Gaagwiis Jason Alsop said. “And you know, in situations like this ... we can turn people away to protect our own people.”

No outsiders arrived on the ferry Monday, but a few have in the past few weeks, Alsop said. They were told to shelter in place in their vehicles in the parking lot and to take the next ferry home.

“There obviously are times there's a little bit of disappointment, upset feelings,” he said. “I think once people really understand the place of respect where we're coming from and legitimate concerns we have around protecting our elders and our limited medical resources and supplies here that, you know, they begin to understand and it sinks in.”

Normally this time of year, visitors would begin arriving to travel to area lodges for sports hunting and fishing, to visit national parks, and to go sightseeing in Skidegate and Old Massett, the two villages on Graham, the largest island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago.

Yovanovich said local residents held the rally to show support for their leaders and tell visitors, “This is the whole island that’s standing behind this.”

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Some of the crowd on the road near the roadblock. (Photo by Mary Helmer)

For weeks, the Haida Nation has made it clear it doesn’t want nonresident, nonessential visitors, a sentiment shared by others in the region. Earlier this month 2,400 Canadians signed a petition calling for a ban on nonessential travel into British Columbia’s northern and central coasts. Provinces are sub-national governments in Canada.

Ordinarily, about 1,000 visitors would travel to the island, which has a year-round population of 4,500 or 5,000.

Yovanovich said the Haida Nation's greatest concern is for its elders.

“They're our knowledge keepers. There's only a few — we have probably 10-plus speakers left. And we're doing all we can with our language now,” Yovanovich said. “There never was a written language. So we're still documenting our language. … Our elders have all that knowledge.”

The Haida are well aware of the danger of disease.

The island was home to several more Haida communities — oceangoing hunters and fishermen known for their complex culture and sophisticated formline art — until a series of epidemics hit beginning in the late 1700s that killed as much as 90 percent of the indigenous people of the region, Yovanovich said. Survivors consolidated in two communities.

“There’s been a couple of them [epidemics] in the past. And that's how all the Haida people ended up getting in Skidegate and Old Massett. Smallcox came here and just about wiped out all of our people.”

He also noted the island has only two ventilators and no medical expertise or equipment to provide appropriate care to patients seriously ill with COVID-19.

On March 23, the Council of the Haida Nation declared a state of emergency under the Constitution of the Haida Nation. It put in place travel restrictions prohibiting all nonresident and leisure travel to Haida Gwaii.

“Once all this changes, it [COVID-19] goes away, things are back to whatever normal looks like, we would welcome people back again.” Alsop said. “But at this point, the direction is ‘stay at home.’ I absolutely want people not to come visit at this time.”

Meanwhile, Queen Charlotte Mayor Chris Olsen, Haida, said his village and other non-Haida communities on Haida Gwaii are behind what the Haida Nation is doing.

“We recognize that the Haida councils behind the Haida nation are looking out for all of our best interests,” Olsen said. “We support them strongly.”

For its part, the British Columbia ferry system notifies travelers that supplies, health care equipment, and other resources are limited in several of the towns where the ferries stop.

Ferry workers ask people if they are engaged in essential travel and advise them not to travel if not. However, ferry workers do not have the authority to enforce that requirement

Update: Wednesday Communications Director Sarah Plank with the British Columbia Ministry of Indigenous Relations & Reconciliation emailed comments on the matter. She said the provincial government acknowledges the concerns of smaller communities, “which face higher risks from COVID-19 because they are isolated and have fewer health care and other resources.

“First Nations have the authority to restrict travel into their communities,” Plank said. “The province is supporting First Nations’ measures to restrict non-essential travel into First Nations communities, including supplying roadside signage.”

Plank said the checkpoint was set up to let “residents know about the importance of self-isolation upon return to Haida Gwaii and to request any other potential travelers to return to the mainland, as many services are currently not available in the community due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with public health guidance for businesses."

“The local Royal Canadian Mounted Police liaised with the Haida Nation as they planned the information checkpoint to ensure it was set up safely – we are not aware of any issues arising,” Plank said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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