COrtes Island: need for Indigenous-led emergency management

the Discourse, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

As Klahoose First Nation comes out of lockdown after a quickly-contained COVID-19 scare, community members echo the need for Indigenous-led emergency management.

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.

The Lockdown

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.

Sharing knowledge

Tiy’ap thote Erik 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. 

Emergency responders say they are grateful for the support the Klahoose received from multi-agencies who stepped up and responded to Klahoose’s call. The sharing is good, Tiy’ap thote says, but more training and capacity-building proactively, not reactively.  

IndigiNews reached out to ISC for comment on their process of supporting communities to manage emergency situations, but did not receive a reply in time of publication. Their response will be included in an updated version when received. 

“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.

Volunteer-run

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. 

“Through rain, bears, cougars and wolves,” Michelle Robinson, traditional name Kwistunlwut (right) says community members will volunteer to protect their people. Beside her, Tiy’ap thote Erik Blaney, Cathy Francis, K’all-K’all Tina Wesley. Photo by Odette Auger

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.

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