B.C. First Nations call on privacy commissioner to release community COVID-19 data

A coalition of B.C. First Nations is demanding the provincial government disclose more information about COVID-19 cases near their communities.

An application to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner was submitted Monday, Sept. 14 by the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, Tsilhqot’in National Government and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. The nations, representing communities located on the Central Coast, Chilcotin and Vancouver Island regions, are asking the Ministry of Health to share the location of presumptive and confirmed COVID-19 cases, whether the case involves a person that has travelled to one of the Nations and the name of a person infected who is a member of one of the Nations to be used for the purpose of culturally-safe contact tracing.

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“The idea that we need to have an outbreak — as we have just had in our community — before B.C. will share information, is reckless and colonial, and it goes against B.C.’s own laws and promises of reconciliation,” said Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation in a news release Tuesday, Sept. 15.

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council publicly confirmed earlier this week that two positive COVID-19 cases have been identified in their small, isolated community off B.C.’s central coast.

During her daily COVID-19 briefing on Monday, Sept. 14 provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said coronavirus exposures that have led to cases in a number of smaller or more remote communities have not been related to a neighbouring community, and that the ministry is working very closely with all First Nation leaders through the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), who are identifed as soon as they know of a positive case.

“I will say that in many cases, the community will know before we know when somebody is ill and before they go for testing because we don’t have any way of knowing whether somebody who has travelled is going to become sick. Where we get notified is when the tests come back positive,” Henry said, adding she also has responsibilities to protect people’s public health information.

Most COVID-19 cases, she said, are arising through known positive contacts, and that 80 per cent of cases are being identified within a few days through contact tracing.

The application by the Nations was filed on the basis that the B.C. Government’s refusal to share information violates Section 25 of the Freedom of Information and Protection Privacy Act.

Past pandemics have devastated First Nations communities.

According to the release, the Nations also contend that B.C.’s own Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act requires that government “must take all measures necessary” to ensure the laws of B.C. are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP), which includes rights to self-determination, self-government and to develop and determine programs for maintaining the health and well-being of Indigenous people.

“Giving lip service to reconciliation, while allowing public officials to continue to disregard our efforts to govern during COVID-19 is deeply wrong,” stated Judith Sayers, President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. “We must have access to the same health datasets the B.C. government has, on a government-to-government basis, if we are going to get through this pandemic together.”

A public campaign supporting the Nations in their bid for the information to be released by the B.C. government has been launched by LeadNow.

Henry said she remains committed to continuing to work with First Nations to meet their needs, including a culturally-safe approach through using a circle of support.

“We need to make sure from our Western way of thinking are incorporating things that are culturally safe so that people are able to come forward and be sure they have the supports they need both from their community and from us in the public health world, so there is more work to be done, absolutely.”

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