Opinion: Not everyone faces a pandemic with a deep-seeded mistrust of the health-care system. But this is one of the challenges that the Tŝilhqot’in Nation faced.

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Like other governments around the world, the Tŝilhqot’in National Government quickly realized that there is no way to be fully prepared for a global pandemic. Although the Tŝilhqot’in people have been here before. A measles epidemic decimated the Tŝilhqot’in in 1848, followed by smallpox in 1860, and global flu epidemics in 1910 and 1918.

This history, knowledge and experience of pandemics has informed the Tŝilhqot’in leadership’s pandemic response over the past year. It is a response that has prioritized protecting elders, deepening cultural practices and connection to land, and advocating for partnerships with the provincial and federal governments. It is also a response that, despite effective leadership within the Tŝilhqot’in Nation and positive individual relationships within provincial and federal government, has been constrained by systemic racism and institutional barriers.

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On the anniversary of the pandemic, the Nation has released its report, Dada Nentsen Gha Yatastig/Tŝilhqot’in in the Time of COVID, highlighting 40 recommendations directed to all levels of government, including the Tŝilhqot’in. The English translation of the title is, “I am going to tell you about a bad disease.” Our report documents the Nation’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, capturing this historic global emergency in real-time as it unfolded. Over the past year, we have all heard some version of the idea that, “we’re all in this pandemic together.” But our report shows how this idea is problematic when understanding the pandemic experiences of Indigenous peoples.

Not everyone faces a pandemic with a deep-seeded mistrust of the health-care system. But this is one of the challenges that the Tŝilhqot’in Nation faced: how to ensure that its citizens had access to culturally safe COVID testing and care despite negative past experiences with the health-care system. In the midst of the pandemic, these concerns — familiar to the Tŝilhqot’in — received renewed attention as a result of the province’s investigation into racism in health care, In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care. The Nation’s response has addressed this head on, countering racism by developing its own Tŝilhqot’in-specific cultural safety training and working with local organizations to provide that training. At the same time, the Tsilhqot’in Health hub has worked tirelessly with health-care providers to establish a circle of care, rapid testing, and to strengthen relationships with its non-Indigenous counterparts.

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Conversely, we were all in it together in terms of accessing information about the spread of COVID through the province. Provincial decision-making about information sharing is one area that erased the distinctive role of Indigenous leadership. Despite being a self-determining nation, the Tŝilhqot’in National Government did not, at least initially, receive COVID case numbers in its capacity as a government. An easily-avoidable COVID exposure occurred in the Tŝilhqot’in communities in the scary, early days of the pandemic, because of a lack of information coordination by government. Ongoing dialogue between the Tŝilhqot’in Nation and other B.C. First Nations with the Provincial Health Officer eventually yielded negotiated agreements that provided a partial response. These agreements offer an example of what is possible through collaboration, although more work is still needed to achieve a true government-to-government data partnership.

While the statement “we’re all in this pandemic together” does not capture the experiences of the Tŝilhqot’in, as an Indigenous nation, we have outlined a path to realize this vision. It’s a vision of partnership with B.C. and Canada in which Indigenous solutions to systemic racism, health care and evidence-based decision-making are lifted up to support Indigenous communities through pandemic recovery and beyond. It is a plan that envisions Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments being “in it together” and it honours the hard work by front-line workers, individual community members and decision-makers who have done their best to keep all of us safe.

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As organizations across the country, and the world, recommit to dismantling systemic discrimination and addressing the gaping inequalities revealed and perpetuated by the pandemic, we invite you to look to the experiences of the Tŝilhqot’in and Indigenous peoples. Our Nation presents a pathway forward with specific actions. This plan is informed by generations of knowledge and experience. It provides a pathway to fulfilling B.C. and Canada’s commitments to upholding the self-determining rights of Indigenous peoples.

Chief Joe Alphonse is tribal chairman of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government; Jocelyn Stacey is assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of B.C.

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