Heiltsuk First Nation tells yachts, outsiders to stay away amid coronavirus lockdown

The Heiltsuk First Nation on B.C.’s central coast has a simple message to recreational boaters and other tourists: stay away from our community during the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the remote community near Bella Bella have grown increasingly vocal after observing a number of yachts and other pleasure vessels pulling into the nearby harbour, violating a travel advisory that has been in place for nearly a month.

Marilyn Slett, the elected chief councillor of the Heiltsuk, says the concern is not only for the elders within the community but also for the travellers themselves.

“We understand that people are out and trying to remain safe during these uncertain times, but our community has really limited resources,” she said.

“If someone here were to get sick, including people on these recreational boats, it would take about an hour … to get them to a hospital where they could receive some medical care.”

The Heiltsuk declared a local state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic last month. No cases have been reported as of April 4.

Starting March 18, the community urged all non-residents to stay away from Bella Bella, which is a popular stopover for boaters travelling from Seattle to Alaska. Just over a week later, that request became mandatory.

Yet members like Jess Housty have taken to social media to criticize yachters who have continued to try and arrive in the harbour, telling them to “stay the f— away from my remote community.”

She also took aim at the provincial government for rescinding all local states of emergency in favour of a broader provincial state of emergency, which does not include mandatory travel restrictions.

Slett and other members on social media have pointed out that the community’s large elder population is particularly at risk from COVID-19, which has proven fatal to many seniors who have contracted the disease around the world.

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They also point out the community has barely survived other pandemics throughout its history, including smallpox, which nearly wiped out their people.

“During this time, we’re doing everything we can to protect our community” and their traditional language, which only a few remaining elders hold the key to preserving, Slett said.

With no end in sight to the ongoing spread of the disease, Slett says her community must do all it can to keep cases down to zero.

“The message to visitors is, don’t come to Bella Bella right now. It’s not the time for a visit. Stay home, because we will not be permitting people into our community who are non-essential.”

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