Marilyn Slett and Judith Sayers: First Nations have the right to #KeepSafe from COVID-19

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      By Marilyn Slett and Judith Sayers

      As First Nations leaders on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus. However, despite our best efforts, we are not being given the information we need to keep our communities safe.

      Since the pandemic began, the B.C. Ministry of Health has ignored our repeated requests to share information about the location of confirmed and presumptive COVID-19 cases near our communities. We need this information so we can decide the necessity of stay-at-home orders, travel prohibitions, contact tracing, and sharing resources with other Nations. We cannot reduce the risk of significant harm to the health and safety of our people if we are working blindfolded.

      In making our request, we are not seeking personal identity (except for contact tracing, with the consent of the individual). Privacy is not an issue here, but a colonial mindset is.  

      As the risks have increased, and as cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in our communities, the B.C. NDP government has remained silent on our requests. With our lives in the balance, we can no longer accept this silence, and so we are taking two exceptional actions that we invite you to support in our effort to get the life-saving information we need.

      First, the Heiltsuk Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, and Tsilhqot’in National Government have filed an application for an order to disclose information with B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and the Commissioner has just announced that he will investigate our complaint.  We believe B.C.’s refusal violates Section 25 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which states that a minister “must” disclose information about a risk of significant harm to an affected group of people. Dr. Bonnie Henry has acknowledged the threat COVID-19 poses to our nations, and we hope the privacy commissioner agrees.

      Second, we have launched an online petition with Leadnow (, asking British Columbians to call on the B.C. government to stop fighting us and to release the lifesaving COVID-19 information we have been requesting since the pandemic began.

      This is not a fight we picked or want. At a time when our energy should be directed to protecting our communities, we find ourselves having to fight tooth and nail just to have access to the same health datasets that B.C. uses for its own decision-making.

      B.C.’s refusal to share this information is deeply wrong on multiple levels, especially in the context of a pandemic. Having faced devastating pandemics in the past, we are all too aware of the threat posed by COVID-19. We still have elders in our communities who remember stories from their grandparents about the loss of human life, culture, and history from the Spanish flu. We are fearful we could experience similar, or even worse, cultural losses today, given the vulnerability of these same elders, who are our culture, knowledge, and language keepers.

      First Nations are among the most vulnerable populations in B.C., and the virus has exposed the inequalities faced by First Nations in providing for the health and well-being of our people. Our families often live in close quarters due to housing shortages, and hospitals are hundreds—if not thousands—of kilometers away. We face a chronic shortage of essential health workers and supplies.

      All of this is exacerbated by B.C.’s colonial refusal to share information, and so today we are calling on you. We need a movement of people to step up and defend our right to information so we can have the tools we need to effectively protect our communities.

      We invite you to uphold racial justice and reconciliation in B.C., even if Premier John Horgan’s government won’t, and to join us in calling for an end to the outrageous neglect and marginalization of First Nations communities.

      If we don’t learn from the lessons of the past, the history and devastation of past pandemics will only repeat themselves.

      We all have a right to #KeepSafe.   

      Marilyn Slett is chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council; Judith Sayers is president of Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.