Fishing charter boats in Prince Rupert sit idle voluntarily to support good health and safety in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the costs being detrimental to the business bottom line. (The Northern View file photo)

North Coast First Nations call for B.C. border crackdown amidst increased tourism

Request from seven Tsimshian elected leaders comes as sport fishing sector races to recover season

Amid increased tourism and recreational fishing, seven elected Tsimshian leaders are asking the province to restrict inter-provincial travel to curb potential outbreaks of COVID-19 in B.C.’s Northwest.

In an open letter to B.C. Premier John Horgan the Nations of Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla opposed the government’s choice to declare angling an essential activity, and faulted Phase 3 of the government’s BC Restart Plan as a “rush to normalcy” that doesn’t account for the North Coast’s limited medical resources.

“Our people rely on the hub city of Prince Rupert for the majority of our services, including activities that contribute to our mental health,” the letter reads. “Our safety and well being should not be jeopardized by people who reside outside of BC who are just visiting for non-essential reasons. The BC Government must make it clear that travelling from other provinces to participate in recreational fishing and other forms of tourism is not acceptable at this time.”

Several Tsimshian communities have been in lock down since March but visitation from tourists has persisted despite repeated public appeals to stay away, the leaders said in a teleconference with Black Press Media.

READ MORE: 5 B.C. First Nations call out Canada for ‘discriminatory’ food fish practices

In Hartley Bay the local government was forced to gate off floats in the bay and erect a ‘closed’ sign with six-foot-tall letters on the fuel dock.

“But we still had to put up with the sport fishing sector, whether it was Americans, or B.C. or from other parts of Canada,” Gitga’at Councillor Cam Hill said. “I cannot comprehend the thinking, when the world is going through a pandemic, with a community like ours that is so isolated … and does not have the means medically to look after anyone that becomes sick.

“Still to this day we’re having to deal with an influx of boats in our community. There’s just a real lack of understanding of what Hartley Bay is trying to do, like a lot of small communities up and down the coast, and that’s to protect ourselves.”

The Sport Fishing Institute of B.C. said shutting down inter-provincial travel would be disastrous for the sector now scrambling to recover what’s left of the season.

“While there is shared concern for the welfare of small communities throughout the province, there is also a dedication to follow the guidelines laid out by the PHO [Public Health Officer] and to adhere to the laws of BC and Canada,” Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C. said. “Careful and responsible adherence to the guidelines set out should permit businesses to operate and to welcome guests, from appropriate locales, within those constraints. Sport fishing and tourism businesses that are operating have done so with care and attention to the Covid pandemic. The additional call for restrictions is unwarranted and unnecessary.”

Prince Rupert fishing charter companies contacted by Black Press Media said their current customer base is equally split between B.C. and Alberta anglers. One of the owners said he worries the issue will increase tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents, but restricting Alberta anglers would mean bankruptcy for his and other charter companies, in addition to having “devastating” impacts on other community businesses.

None of the businesses contacted agreed to be named.

The province declared sport fishing an essential activity in April and is now encouraging local tourism and sport fishing where physical distancing guidelines can be observed.

READ MORE: Orca punting seal spotted by Greater Victoria whale watching company

The Tsimshian leaders said they support the majority of the province’s decisions related to the pandemic but requests for additional measures on the North Coast have been ignored until an outbreak on Haida Gwaii last month forced a lock down.

“We’re doing what we can in our communities to protect our members,” Gitxaala (Kitkatla) Chief Councillor Linda Innes said. “We have pandemic plans and the province has pandemic plans, but those plans need to be in alignment.

“They’re opening up the province for economic development, but at the end of the day it can be devastating for people who have family and loved ones who lose their lives to the pandemic.”

The Ministry of Public Safety has opened discussions with the Tsimshian leaders, they said.

In an email to Black Press Media the province didn’t address their letter specifically, or the call for inter-provincial travel restrictions, but reiterated the request of B.C.’s PHO, Dr. Bonnie Henry, for the public to be respectful of communities’ varying levels of readiness to open their doors.

“While some communities are welcoming visitors to support their local economy, we are aware that other communities have concerns,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation wrote.

“We have had ongoing dialogue for the last few months with Nations on the north-central and west coast about their concerns around the reopening. It’s important that we continue to meet and hear about their circumstances and thoughts as we move forward, and that we share the latest information. For all of us, everyone’s safety is our top priority, and we continue to believe the best way forward is through dialogue.”

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