A travel ban at ‘the edge of the world’: Haida Gwaii measure comes after months’ long fight by community

VANCOUVER—Tarah Samuels was setting up camp on the northern lip of the large B.C. archipelago known as the edge of the world when a nurse came to deliver the news that brought her efforts to a “crashing halt.”

She and other Haida matriarchs had been setting up to protest travel to the islands — a fight they believed would keep the coronavirus at bay.

But the virus had already arrived.

Days later, the province would announce the news they had been hoping for: Travel to Haida Gwaii was banned.

“We’re a collectivist society, Haida people. We survive by being together,” Samuels said. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 safety flips who we are upside down.”

Last weekend, Samuels and a group of Haida matriarchs had been camping at Naden Harbour in a demonstration to visitors at nearby fishing lodges, one of the many tourist attractions that bring hundreds of people to Haida Gwaii each summer, that the locals did not want visitors during the pandemic.

It was one in a series of efforts by the Council of Haida Nation and local residents that began in March to implore the public not to come to Haida Gwaii, since the province refused to officially ban travel there.

The efforts to keep visitors out, which the council maintained were in the best interests of protecting the region even though they went beyond what was required by public health orders, created tension with local tourism operators who wanted to resume their businesses.

The outbreak identified last Friday has resulted in 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Haida Gwaii, with 13 active as of Thursday, and all of them isolating at home. Public health officials said all the cases identified on Haida Gwaii could be connected to local residents who travelled off the island.

Due to the closeness of the communities on Haida Gwaii, and the fact that it’s separated from mainland B.C. by a ferry ride, the fear since the pandemic began has been that, if the virus arrived on Haida Gwaii, it would be impossible to contain.

“Everybody knew that if it gets to Haida Gwaii, it will spread fast,” said Kyle Marshall, volunteer fire chief who works for the archipelago’s Emergency Operations Centre. “The goal was to keep it from having landfall in Haida Gwaii.”

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said she’s encouraged by the fact that none of the cases in the region so far have an unexplained origin — so it’s still possible to contain the outbreak through contact tracing and isolation.

As part of the containment strategy, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth on Thursday announced a ban on non-resident travel to Haida Gwaii, except for the transport of essential supplies, which he is able to order under the province’s state of emergency.

The Council of the Haida Nation welcomed the order, which it said aligns B.C. with the local efforts already underway on Haida Gwaii to protect residents from the virus.

Haida Gwaii is an island archipelago north of Vancouver island, which has been home to the Haida people for thousands of years. Now, Haida people make up about half the region’s population, and its diverse rainforest-dwelling creatures, rugged landscapes, centuries-old First Nations cultural sites and meandering coastlines draw thousands of visitors each year.

Though the initial goal was to keep the virus away entirely, now Haida leaders say they’re focusing efforts on wiping it out.

“The order will be a reset button for our local governments on Haida Gwaii to commit to working together to free us from this virus as soon as possible,” Billy Yovanovich, chief councillor of the Skidegate Band, said in a statement.

Jean-Paul Soucy, a University of Toronto researcher who has been tracking the spread of the coronavirus in Canada, said that although remote regions such as Haida Gwaii may have a natural advantage at containing the virus because of a limited population size, they also have unique challenges when it comes to contact tracing.

“The fact is people need to know how to talk to whoever they’re trying to contact trace and that means they need to have local support,” Soucy said. In remote, Indigenous communities, the capacity to scale up contact tracing may be lower.

“It’s all the more critical to shut those trains of transmission down quickly, because if it takes too long, you end up with more people infected,” he said.

Samuels, who has joined the islands’ coronavirus response to help with communications, said the top priority has been communicating the importance of socializing only within small family bubbles — even though that goes against the Haida culture to celebrate, grieve and be together.

Samuels, who lives in Old Masset in the northern area of Haida Gwaii, said public meetings bringing four generations of people together are a mainstay of her community — and it’s especially hard for the elders who have done this for decades to wrap their heads around meeting over Zoom instead of in person.

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“Covid-19 isn’t stopping us; it definitely threw a curve ball, but I feel like we can adapt from it,” she said. “Being Haida, we’re asked to think outside ourselves. It’s really hard to think about just my family.”

Even though Samuels felt shocked and sad when she found out about the outbreak and dismantled camp at Naden Harbour to return home, she said she now feels hopeful again.

“The silver lining in my family is that we can connect more,” she said, thinking about how she’s spending more time with her son, and teaching her mom how to use Zoom. “For me it’s not a loss having COVID here. The win is going to be how we respond to it.”

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