Fog hides the village of Klahoose and a checkpoint blocks the one road into the reserve, home to around 91 members. A small crackling fire warms four people as they gather six feet apart, wearing masks under a white tent.
The three Klahoose women guarding the front line are a part of the First Nation’s emergency response team.
A COVID-19 cluster outbreak in a remote island First Nations community is highlighting the need for Indigenized emergency management, according to emergency responders.
Kathy Francis is the incident commander of the checkpoint, set up Nov. 26, after the first COVID-19 positive case reached the community.
“Through rain, bears, cougars and wolves,” community members have stepped up to help maintain the check-point, preventing travel in and out of the village, says Michelle Robinson, traditional name Kwistunlwut, Klahoose council member.
Through mourning as well, for the loss of an Elder, unrelated to the virus, at the same time.
After the initial positive COVID-19 case was confirmed in Klahoose, three members tested positive shortly after. The community went into an emergency lockdown, and the checkpoint has been one strict measure that emergency responders and community members have taken to prevent the virus from spreading further.
On Dec. 3, a press release confirmed three cases recovered, and symptomatic testing returned negative, cleared by health officials.
Tiy’ap thote Eriik Blaney, from the sister nation Tla’amin, is the emergency services advisor for the Naut’ sa mawt Tribal Council, a collective of eleven Salish Nations.
He came to assist Klahoose with their response to the potential COVID-19 outbreak, bringing his experience as the incident commander to a cluster outbreak in Tla’amin Nation in September.
Right before the Tla’amin had their first positive case in the community, the nation participated in a set of sharing exercises with the N’amgis First Nation.
“We learned a lot in the time and experience, and I credit a lot of those teachings that came from the N’amgis experience, because they had their outbreak just before we did,” Tiy’ap thote says.
“A lot of Indigenous communities are sharing their experiences right now, and I think that’s really helping set up a number of communities to understand the process we have to work within.”
He’s referring to the provincial emergency management structure, under Emergency Management BC (EMBC), the province’s lead coordinating agency for all emergency management activities.
“It’s a paramilitary organized system that not a lot of Indigenous communities have ever had any exposure to,” Tiy’ap thote says.
“It’s really difficult for a lot of those nations who don’t have the capacity, or haven’t taken any of the training, to jump right into this system and be expected to know it and understand it, when they’re actually in an emergency.”
In his role with Naut’ sa mawt Tribal Council, Tiy’ap thote supports 11 nations. He says there have been ongoing weekly meetings with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), stakeholders, and all other nations that have gone through or are currently going through COVID outbreaks or clusters.
ISC is the federal agency responsible for supporting “Indigenous Peoples to independently deliver services and address the socio-economic conditions in their communities,” according to their website.
In an email response, ISC Media Relations Leslie Michelson told IndigiNews that the Government of Canada is investing nearly $259 million over five years, starting in 2019-2020, to strengthen the capacity of First Nations to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate emergencies.
“Investments will go toward initiatives such as First Nations-led training, emergency planning, and emergency capacity building,” Michelson writes.
These services and responsibilities have been devolved to the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) as part of the British Columbia Tripartite Framework Agreement on First Nation Health Governance, she says.
“Both the Klahoose First Nation and the Naut’sa mawt Tribal Council have been supported with funding under the Emergency Management Assistance Program for some of their priorities,” Michelson continues. “Along with health and response agencies, ISC has also actively participated in coordination calls to support Klahoose.”
Emergency responders say they are grateful for the support the Klahoose received from multi-agencies who stepped up and responded to their call. The sharing is good, Tiy’ap thote says, but more training and capacity-building is needed proactively, not reactively.
“It’s a little late. There’s a lot of work that should have been done and a lot more emphasis on training Indigenous people to participate in this system,” he says.
One of the barriers to efficient community-led emergency response, Tiy’ap thote explains, is a lack of funding for emergency coordinators in First Nations communities.
By 2022, Michelson says ISC aims to fund up to 17 positions in B.C. on an ongoing basis. They currently support 11 Emergency Preparedness Coordinator positions serving 66 First Nations.
On top of being the Fisheries and Resources officer for her nation, K’all-K’all Tina Wesley fills the role of emergency coordinator at Klahoose, on a volunteer basis.
She saw a need to build capacity for her community six years ago and worked steadily to learn the EMBC structure and system.
All of the training, conferences, exercises and workshops have been on her own time.
There is EMBC funding available for up to two community members for emergency response training, offered online through the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC).
“But it’s online and it’s not the best way for Indigenous people to learn,” Tiy’ap thote notes. “So we’ve been trying to get help from the school and that has been difficult as well. And again, it’s an expectation for people to do it off the side of their desk.”
The system needs a shakeup, Tiy’ap thote says, and he feels like the time is now.
Indigenization of emergency services
Tiy’ap thote says there are strong connections and communication between Indigenous communities looking to help each other with emergency response training.
“It’s almost in our DNA to come together and respond in the way that Indigenous communities do,” Tiy’ap thote says.
The current emergency response system works, Tiy’ap thote says, all over the world, but he believes it needs to be “Indigenized and more culturally-appropriate.”
Indigenized emergency management means including the protection of cultural sites and practices, he explains, as well as cultural sensitivity training for first responders.
“My opinion is that ISC loves to treat us as their children, their federal children,” says Robinson. All EMBC emergency management funds are requested and approved through ISC.
What does the community want?
Although First Nations are responsible for preparing for and responding first during an emergency, many do not have the resources to employ an emergency manager full-time, confirms Shaun Koopman, who is Protective Services Coordinator for the Strathcona Regional District, which includes Cortes Island.
Koopman says many First Nations in the region have a volunteer person responsible for emergency management, who is already employed full-time in another position.
“It is important that First Nations have a dedicated full-time emergency manager whose job focuses on prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery from all hazards,” Koopman says.
“This person would also be responsible for cost recovery following an evacuation,” says Koopman.
This ongoing pandemic, and recent positive cases, have amplified the need for more funding and training for emergency responders, Robinson echoes.
“What are the chances of a pandemic happening? Who would’ve thought we’d be here? Doing this?,” asks Robinson. “They’ll turn around and give us a tsunami siren, they’ll justify that, but what’s the point of that, if there’s no training? Or if there’s nobody to do an emergency response in the community?”
‘I raise my hands’
The state of emergency in Klahoose was lifted Monday, Dec. 7, at midnight.
To protect its members and the health of neighbouring communities, Klahoose First Nation announced it will continue with the total travel ban, restricting outside visitors until after Christmas.
“We know we are asking a lot of our members,” writes Chief Kevin Peacey. “Christmas is a time for family and being together, but by protecting Elders and those with vulnerable health, we are ensuring we will all be together to celebrate in the future.”
As Tiy’ap thote leaves Klahoose, he says he feels gratitude and the warmth associated with being well-hosted. K’all-K’all will continue to work for her community, and advocate for more support for emergency response training and resources.
The COVID experience has shown that there’s no such thing as too much preparation, he says.
“I really raise my hands to the ones that have taken it upon themselves. And I raise my hands to leadership that supports their members, who take on these roles,” Robinson says.
Editor’s note, Dec. 15, 2020: This article has been updated to include comments from ISC Media Relations Leslie Michelson