Nuxalk hereditary leadership, supported by council, are enforcing a community lockdown a the base of the hill on Highway 20. (photo taken March 28, 2020)

UPDATED: Bella Coola and Bella Bella asking non-essential travellers to stay away

The remote coastal first nation is concerned about COVID-19 with increased summer tourism

First Nation communities on the BC coast north of Vancouver Island are urging visitors to stay away even as B.C. begins to loosen travel advisories.

The remote Nuxalk First Nation has been fielding calls from people inquiring about travelling to Bella Coola. Nuxalk’s emergency operations centre is issuing permits to those on essential travel – mostly residents – and requesting that all others not come.

Bella Bella, meanwhile, has made the decision to extend its travel lockdown to and in Heiltsuk Territory until May 31.

“If you are not a resident of Heiltsuk Territory, you will be turned away. Exceptions will apply to essential services staff and mission critical staff for the hospital and food or fuel services,” a media release from the Hailzaqv Nation stated.

“There’s a few calls we’re getting that are for tourists and sport fishing, and people wanting to go to their summer homes. We’re asking that they please not do that, expressing to them that that’s not essential travel, and sharing the concerns of the Nuxalk leadership,” said Jessica Miller, acting deputy of the Nuxalk emergency operations centre.

“We’re seeing some of the people who we’ve asked not to come are coming anyway. It’s frustrating and disheartening to see that,” Miller said.

RELATED: Easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon could jeopardize vulnerable communities

READ MORE: Nuxalk leadership move to lockdown community

The Nuxalk Nation’s traditional territory is in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, in and around Bella Coola, a small town on the coastal mainland approximately 250 kilometers north of Port Hardy. It takes a 10-hour ferry ride through long forested inlets to get there from Vancouver Island.

“People in the community are starting to ask new faces, ‘Where are you from? Why aren’t you self-isolating? Why aren’t you social distancing?’ People who are out and about just laugh at them.”

The concern for small communities like the Nuxalk Nation is that they lack resources to deal with a disease outbreak. Currently there are no confirmed cases in Bella Coola, and they want to keep it that way.

“People seem to think it’s safer here,” Miller said. “I’ve seen other nations nearby announce recent lockdowns.”

Even as the province announces plans to gradually reopen, remote communities are feeling pressure to restrict travel. The Hailzaqv release also noted that if you leave Bella Bella, you may not be permitted to return during the pandemic, this includes weekend trips to Port Hardy or other communities.

“Our band store will continue to be open to keep essential foods available… Your continued support and understanding are appreciated. We all need to work together to get through these days of uncertainty. We will be able to keep us all safe as long as we continue to act safely.”

READ MORE: Ulkatcho First Nation implementing road closures and restrictions

As people from more populated areas of the province feel they can start travelling again, they’ll resume summer travel plans to the coast.

Already Miller is noticing an increased number of calls from sport fishing businesses and other tourism, many of whom get most of their clients from the States. It’s a major worry for Nuxalk leadership, she said. With summer coming, they worry it will just get worse.

“We’re really appreciative of everyone who calls, because that’s our main method of controlling who comes here. We’re trying to provide a fair process for essential travellers, and trying to tell people who aren’t essential travel, just, no.”

Ferry service, one of the three ways to get to Bella Coola, runs out of Port Hardy. The community has a small airport, serviced by Pacific Coastal Airlines. Overland travel arrives from Highway 20 out of Williams Lake.

The Nuxalk Nation has approximately 1,500 members, with nearly 900 living in and around Bella Coola. Bella Coola has approximately 2,000 residents according to the last census.

— with a file from Tyson Whitney


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