As COVID-19 numbers rise in northern British Columbia, 22 Ts’ako ze’—female chiefs—of the Wet’suwet’en Nation are urging the province’s public health officer to shut down Coastal GasLink work camps located on their territory, fearing especially for their Elders—both as beloved individuals and as essential repositories of oral culture.
The three camps, which together house nearly 700 workers, are currently classified as essential services, reports The Tyee. In an open letter, the 22 chiefs are urging Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry to change that designation so the camps can be shut down.
“Everybody’s really concerned,” said Molly Wickham, Sleydo’, a spokesperson for Gidimt’en, an Indigenous camp near the Unist’ot’en Healing Centre. She told The Tyee that “at least two people” at the nearby Coastal GasLink 9A camp had recently tested positive for the virus and were hospitalized after being sent home to their respective communities within Wet’suwet’en territory.
The Ts’ako ze’ signatories were galvanized to write their open letter when news broke of a confirmed outbreak of 40 cases linked to the LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, Wickham told the Vancouver Sun.
“That’s when people started getting really scared and wanted something done,” she said. “Nobody wants to lose a family member or a loved one, or to have them in an ICU hundreds and hundreds of miles away.”
After news of the outbreak broke, LNG Canada CEO Peter Zebedee published an open letter asserting that the safety of workers and of nearby communities was top of mind for his company, reports Rigzone. Citing regional health agency Northern Health, Zebedee claimed the outbreak had been contained to the camp with no associated public cases.
But what the Wet’suwet’en Ts’ako ze’ have witnessed has not been reassuring. Wickham told The Tyee that apprehension is being felt across her Nation as rumours fly about more possible outbreaks in camps near Houston and Burns Lake, B.C. She also testified to intimidating and pandemic-flouting encounters with Coastal GasLink security.
“They don’t respect any of the rules,” she said. “They’re not wearing masks when they’re driving around with one another or when they’re interacting with us,” and similar carelessness has been seen among members of the local RCMP. “They’ll just come right up to your vehicle, right up to the window, and you always have to ask them to stand back.”
Meanwhile, northern B.C. is seeing a surge of new COVID-19 cases, “growing from about a half-dozen a day a few weeks ago to an average 28 new cases per day over the past week” as of December 1, The Tyee writes.
This explosion of infections occurred shortly after Coastal GasLink confirmed that it has more than 4,000 workers in the field—up precipitously from the skeleton crew of about 400 that it cut back to in late March in response to the pandemic’s initial outbreak.
The open letter by the Wet’suwet’en chiefs comes on the heels of an urgent appeal from the Heiltsuk Nation and Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to the B.C. government asking for information on coronavirus infections in or near their communities.
“They also want the names of nation members who test positive to allow culturally safe contact tracing,” writes The Tyee.
Keen concern for the preservation of Indigenous culture was paramount in the letter from the Wet’suwet’en Ts’ako ze’, who testified that the loss of even a single Elder to the coronavirus would further devastate their Nation’s collective memory.
“Due to colonization, we now have less than 2.9% of language speakers left, who have an average age of 71,” wrote the signatories. “Our language and culture is as important to us as our yintah [territory]. The passing of each Elder has intergenerational impacts on our ability to maintain our language and culture.”
Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports that Alberta’s tar sands/oil sands operations are struggling to contain outbreaks, with the Sturgeon Refinery and Heartland Petrochemical Complex near Edmonton and seven sites in the Fort McMurray region now on the province’s outbreak list.
With “hundreds of cases…currently linked to the sites in the northern health zone, where this week around 13% of people tested were found to be infected with the virus,” the oil and gas industry is responding by launching internal contact tracing efforts as the province’s own tracing system reels under the weight of the explosion in cases.
A massive bottleneck in the Alberta Health Services tracing effort “means the province has almost no idea where most people are getting sick,” writes the Globe. “Even before the system began sputtering early this month, nearly half of all infections had no known source. Now, that number is 82%.”
Faced with the fact that community spread is the likely driver of the “vast majority” of cases at Syncrude Canada’s Mildred Lake operation, the oil major recently lobbied Fort McMurray’s city council to mandate mask wearing. Imperial Oil, which runs the Kearl Lake work camp in Fort McKay, has responded by implementing “autonomous temperature screening for workers via cameras.”
But such efforts have proven ineffective. “None of that has stopped the virus infiltrating oil projects,” the Globe reports.
Now the consequences of this failure are stretching beyond Alberta’s borders, with a May outbreak at Kearl Lake being linked to a further outbreak “in a remote Dene village in Northern Saskatchewan, where more than 130 of the community’s 2,800 people ended up infected.” That outbreak has so far resulted in two deaths.
“Unless Alberta’s provincial pandemic numbers start to drop, Imperial expects more cases at the Kearl Lake camp, the company told employees in a recent notice,” adds the Globe.