VICTORIA — First Nations in British Columbia have been largely successful in keeping COVID-19 out of their communities by strictly following health guidelines and relying on the advice of elders about smallpox and tuberculosis that decimated Indigenous populations, say health officials.
Since Jan. 1, there have been 87 cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous people in B.C. and four deaths, a rate below the provincial average, Dr. Shannon McDonald of the First Nations Health Authority, said Friday.
She said there are currently three active cases among Indigenous Peoples in B.C.
The province reported 10 new COVID-19 cases Friday, bringing the provincial total to 2,878. There have been 174 deaths.
"I'm also pleased to tell you that thanks to an extraordinary response from our First Nations communities, the people the First Nations Health Authority serves have fared even better than the rest of the population in the face of this unprecedented challenge," McDonald said at a news conference on Friday.
She said the results are from data based on COVID-19 testing of more than 5,500 Indigenous people through a program unique in Canada that allows the sharing of federal and provincial data with the health authority.
McDonald credited the success to the many sacrifices made by First Nations communities to follow health restrictions, restrict travel and the willingness to cancel cultural and family gatherings that are integral to Indigenous culture.
"The sacrifices made, some of them very difficult and painful, have paid off," she said. "The worst, which many anticipated and feared, did not happen. Transmission of the virus within and between our communities was kept to a very small number."
McDonald said those communities must continue efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, especially since the B.C. government decided this week to ease more health restrictions, including allowing travel in the province.
"This is no time to lower our guard," she said. "The curve has flattened but not flat lined."
Judith Sayers, president of the 14 Nation Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said Friday Indigenous communities are concerned that increased travel could mean the arrival of the virus in their territories.
There are more than 10,000 Nuu-chah-nulth members in 14 communities on the west coast of Vancouver Island, including Port Alberni, Bamfield and Tofino.
Sayers said the Nuu-chah-nulth were not properly consulted by the provincial government prior to the announcement that health restrictions would be eased.
The Nuu-chah-nulth and other Indigenous groups on B.C.'s central coast and the Interior said the failure to consult about the reopening puts Indigenous lives at risk.
Sayers said there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in her communities.
"People tried very hard to follow the guidelines."
She said not allowing large funerals "really hurt."
But the memories of smallpox, which almost wiped out Nuu-chah-nulth communities, were invoked as strong forces to keep the virus away, she said.
"There was a certain effort that that would never happen this time," said Sayers.
McDonald agreed, saying the advice of elders remembering how previous diseases like tuberculosis spread uncontrolled through Indigenous communities convinced residents to follow health guidelines.
"History is an ugly thing for many First Nations communities," she said. "We have people alive and well who tell the stories of previous pandemics."
McDonald said the appearance of COVID-19 in April in the remote village of Alert Bay, located on Cormorant Island off northern Vancouver Island, also served as a wake-up call for people about the ability of the illness to show up anywhere.
Premier John Horgan urged travellers earlier this week to be aware that some communities are not prepared to welcome tourists or may not want them there because of the COVID-19 risk.
Sayers said talks are ongoing between Indigenous leaders, health and government officials about the potential impacts of the reopening on Indigenous communities.
The tribal council had said that it was prepared to restrict access to their territories, but Sayers did not say when or if that would occur.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 26, 2020.