Signs put up at Chawathil First Nation inform passerby that the nation is closed to the public. “Trespassers will be observed and reported,” it states. Submitted photo

‘Closed to the public’: Hope area First Nations brace for COVID-19

Keeping visitors out, and ensuring members have supplies they need, is focus for local nations

Hope area First Nations are bracing for COVID-19 by closing their doors to the public, and helping their members with food and other essentials.

“Due to health and safety concerns, Chawathil First Nations is closed to the public,” signs up around Chawathil read. “Trespassers will be observed and reported,” the sign continues. And the community of just over 350 people, with an additional around 300 living away from the nation, is being vigilant.

Chief Rhoda Peters, who has herself been in a 14-day self-isolation after a brief visit to the United States, said for now the first nation doesn’t have anyone stationed at the road in from Highway 7. It’s more about residents being vigilant, and only allowing in essential services like grocery deliveries.

“We put up signage…to keep our community safe, because we have a lot of Elders, we have a lot of people with diabetes, arthritis, other underlying health conditions,” said emergency program coordinator Audrey George.

“It’s been pretty good, everybody has been staying home. And like everybody else in the province, we’re having a hard time finding tissue, flour, eggs and stuff like that,” she added. People have been getting on social media to navigate these shortages George said. Chawathil has also been advising Elders in particular to stay home and offering to do shopping for them, but they all have families looking out for these needs.

The first nation is under a local state of emergency and emergency funding has been provided to members both on-and-off reserve. Produce, and disinfectant packages for Elders, has also been distributed.

Further north on Highway 7, Skawahlook First Nation has closed their office as well as the Syexw Cho:leqw Adventure Park until further notice. Community events have also been cancelled.

Across the Fraser, Shxw’ow’hamel First Nation is being equally vigilant. Chief administrative officer and one of the nation’s leaders Siyam Shane James said the community already has security staff who are checking in on any vehicles that may not belong to residents. For the time being the road in is open, but James said discussions are underway and the nation is prepared to completely close should they become aware of a case of COVID-19 in Hope.

Related: B.C. First Nation chief closes border at Kingcome Inlet to keep out COVID-19

“There are a lot of Elders here. It would make its way quickly through the community,” James said of the worst-case-scenario, COVID-19 in his community.

For the time being, James said their COVID-19 committee is planning for these scenarios. They are buying extra supplies and working on getting supplies delivered.

And people are adhering to the strict orders from the province’s chief medical health officer, even in times of family crisis. One member passed away and the family was only able to have a private viewing, James said, and are waiting to have a service.

Up the Fraser Canyon, Shelley Bobb said the 46 community members of Spuzzum First Nation are hunkering down. They’ve stopped the visits of those who normally provide services in the community, and made a community food order through Sysco when grocery stores were experiencing shortages. Basics like flour, sugar, beans, potatoes and other staples were ordered, some of which has been distributed to community members.

“We’re trying to really encourage no one to go anywhere unless they really have to,” Bobb said. They are ensuring everyone that needs prescriptions has them, as well as gathering medicines, feminine hygiene products and diapers.

“We’re used to…I mean, we’ve had no power. We’ve been stuck here because of the slides. Most of the people here, we’re stockpiled. You know, we do big shopping,” Bobb said.

Most First Nations in the area have closed the doors of their offices, including the Yale First Nation office located in Hope. Staff are working from home, the nation confirmed, adding that there are no confirmed cases in their community “either at home or away.”

It’s a difficult time, Chief Ken Hansen acknowledged, but one which his council and staff are working hard on. “Even though there is an immediate threat of illness to their own families, they have stepped up and found new ways to comfort and instill hope back into our citizens,” he said.

“I must acknowledge the Town of Hope and surrounding communities for the effort of really pulling together during this hard time and finding support, where they may have not seen it before,” he added. “We have experienced a very humbling amount of challenges over the last few months and we are proud to be a part of the collective.”

The Hope Standard reached out to the first nations of Boston Bar, Boothroyd, Peters and Union Bar and did not hear back as of publication time.

Related: Concerns raised over COVID-19 outbreak plans for Indigenous communities

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