COVID-19 in B.C.: First Nations seek access to case information, BCTF demands further measures in schools

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      Two groups in B.C.—one representing teachers and another formed from several First Nations—are asking for changes from the provincial government to better protect people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Meanwhile, public health authorities across the province will begin publishing notifications about COVID-19 cases at schools on their websites.

      (For today's B.C. COVID-19 update, see this article.)

      B.C. teaching concerns

      The B.C. Teachers’ Federation has been vocal in its criticism of the province’s back-to-school plan and in its advocacy for the safety and health of students, teachers, staff, and all involved. 

      This week, BCTF president Teri Mooring sent a letter on September 14 to B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming in which she criticized the ministry’s “lack of clear direction on fundamental health and safety issues and on equity of learning opportunities” that have resulted in “needless uncertainties and inconsistencies” as well as “anxiety, fear, and stress”.

      Consequently, Mooring stated that the BCTF is observing “vastly different policies and practices across the province”, which are resulting in “significant inequities” and “confusion, stress, and a downward slide in working and learning conditions”.

      To address these issues, the BCTF demanded that consistent measures be enforced province-wide, including providing every BCTF member a face shield, remote learning options available for all students, and dedicated staffing for remote learning program (instead of adding to the workload of classroom teachers).   

      “Without ensuring these consistent measures, our members are feeling pressured to work in unsafe conditions,” Mooring stated. “This exploits their professionalism as teachers, their high expectations of themselves and their caring for students.”

      Cases in schools

      Meanwhile, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced in their B.C. COVID-19 update today the public exposures webpage for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) will begin providing links to regional health authorities' school notification webpages, which provide the date and type of notification (outbreak, cluster or exposure) for impacted schools.

      The first public health authority to be listed is Fraser Health, and others will follow.

      Fraser Health includes school districts in Abbotsford, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Chilliwack, Delta, Fraser Cascade, Langley, Maple Ridge, Mission, New Westminster, and Surrey.

      So far, there have been two schools—Delta Secondary School in Delta and Johnson Heights Secondary in Surrey—reported as having confirmed cases on their premises.

      Tsilhqot’in National Government

      First Nations concerns

      Over the past few weeks, several First Nations reported their first cases or outbreaks, including Haida Nation on Haida Gwaii, Squamish Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, Tla’amin Nation in Powell River, and the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella.

      On September 15, a coalition of First Nations that formed, including the Heiltsuk Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, and Tsilhqot’in National Government, with support from other First Nations, civil society groups, and doctors, announced that it applied to B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy for an order to disclose COVID-19 case information about the location (but not the personal identities) of presumptive and confirmed COVID-19 cases near their communities.

      In a news release, the coalition explained that the nations applied because they claim that the B.C. government’s withholding of information violates the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which states that a minister “must” disclose information about risks of significant harm to an affected group of people. 

      “The idea that we need to have an outbreak—as we have just had in our community—before B.C. will share information, is reckless and colonial, and it goes against B.C.’s own laws and promises of reconciliation,” Heiltsuk Nation chief councillor Marilyn Slett stated.

      The coalition also stated that B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA) requires that government “must take all measures necessary” to ensure the laws of B.C. are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP), which includes rights to self-determination, self-government, and to develop and determine programs for maintaining Indigenous peoples’ health and well-being.

      “We must have access to the same health datasets the B.C. government has, on a government-to-government basis, if we are going to get through this pandemic together,” Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president Judith Sayers stated.

      In addition, the nations pointed out that the B.C. Health Ministry hasn’t explained why proximate COVID-19 cases aren’t risks of significant harm to the health or safety of First Nations, or how withholding information is in line with B.C.’s DRIPA obligations.

      The coalition explained that previous pandemics, including smallpox and the Spanish flu, have devastated First Nations communities.

      B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association president Mike Larsen said that his organization supports the application.

      “It is precisely during a pandemic that sharing information matters the most,” Larsen said. “Disclosing proximate case information to First Nations governments so they can take measures to protect their people, including culturally-safe contact tracing, is clearly in the public interest.”

      The coalition and LeadNow have launched a public campaign and petition to ask the government to release the requested information.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.