With its population of about 1,000, Maaqtusiis, the name of Ahousaht's main village on Flores Island, is the largest First Nations community on the coast of Vancouver Island. It is remote, accessible only by boat or float plane. On a normal day, it is teeming with activity.
Residents travel around the village in vehicles that have been barged in; they can be seen criss-crossing the settlement most days.
The elementary and high schools are usually filled with children and staff while workers in the village carry on with their day-to-day tasks.
But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic Ahousaht has grown quiet as people heed the warnings to stay at home and avoid contact with others. The Ahousaht Emergency Operations Team has jumped into action, initiating protocols to protect residents and developing new measures where needed.
Curtis Dick is Ahousaht's EOC Director. He began coordinating community meetings and dispensing information about COVID-19 in early March, before the ban on large gatherings was imposed on British Columbians by the provincial health officer.
But with dire news coming in from China and Spain about the spread of COVID-19 there, and the provincial government declaring a state of emergency, Ahousaht was in a position to activate their Emergency Operations Team. According to Elected Chief Greg Louie, this means that Ahousaht could reach out to Emergency Management British Columbia for resources to help get through the crisis.
Dick and his team work from a command centre located in the village fire hall. They've inventoried the residents, making note of those suffering with health issues, including cold or flu symptoms.
“We started with 19 people that self-isolated; today there are nine with seven of those isolating due to compromised immune systems,” said Dick on April 6.
The team has requested that all residents and boat owners check in when they enter or leave the village, noting the places that they went. No non-residents are permitted to come to the village unless they are essential workers, and this includes Ahousaht members. Dick says that sanitizing products are placed at each dock so that the boat skippers can do the required cleaning of their boats after each trip.
Because there is no hospital in Ahousaht, the village has a roster of first responders who are trained in first aid and often assess patients, deciding whether or not they need a trip to Tofino General Hospital. But now there are only four volunteer first responders willing to take the risk of home visits when needed. Dick says they are working with Tofino General Hospital, the First Nations Health Authority and the NTC nurses to develop protocols for people dealing with those exhibiting symptoms of contagious illnesses.
“They go in with full PPE,” said Dick, meaning Personal Protective Equipment – they wear full gown, gloves and masks.
In one case, Dick said that the first responder went to the house and stood at the door while talking to the patient.
“She made a call to 811 (B.C.’s nurse help hotline) for advice,” said Dick, adding that they have received instruction from TGH that only life and death cases should be transported there. “If the patient must go to Tofino then everyone wears full PPE, even the boat driver.”
He explained that we all must do our part not to overwhelm the health care system at this time.
Most people are abiding by health professional's advice to stay home and Dick believes that because they are proactive arly on to protect the village, they are having success.
“But, like anywhere else there are one or two that don't follow the rules,” said Dick.
The EOC received reports of some people that had been partying and mingling with others.
“We are in uncharted waters and we're scared of what could happen if this (COVID-19) came to our community,” said Dick.
He noted that it was unfair to the rest of the community when there’s one or two putting them at risk.
“We have a place to send them if it continues,” said Dick, adding that they haven't had to use that particular facility yet.
Chief Louie continues to seek support for his people.
“Two weeks ago the Prime Minister announced $305 million would be going out to First Nations across Canada; we are reaching out to Indigenous Services Canada to determine how much of that will be coming to Ahousaht.”
He went to say that he hopes the funding will arrive sometime this week.
Louie noted that his council has faced challenges in finding support for its off-reserve population due to government funding conditions.
“We've reached out to partners that we work with, non-government organizations that we do business with to help out our off-reserve people,” said Louie.
Ahousaht has been bringing groceries into the community in an effort to keep people at home. In addition, residents have been fishing and harvesting other resources to feed the people. They have been able to send out food vouchers to members living in Port Alberni, Victoria and Nanaimo.
“We hope that we can help our people both on and off reserve once a week,” said Louie.
His staff have been teleconferencing with provincial ministers seeking additional support for members.
Louie said his nation is hoping to secure federal funding for its off-reserve people, but were told by the Indigenous Services regional director that funding for off-reserve members goes to urban organizations like Friendship Centres.
“But some Friendship Centres are closed (due to COVID-19 pandemic), so we are asking that funding for urban members come to the nations so we can take care of our own,” said Louie.
As Ahousaht leadership continues to navigate its way through uncertain waters, Dick said his team is preparing for worst case scenarios.
“We are preparing our lodge to put people there in isolation if it comes here,” he told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
They are also looking at using the elementary school for the same purpose if necessary.
“We are doing our best to think of everything; education is key,” said Dick.
One thing that Ahousaht's EOC cannot do is meet the emotional needs of the community. The prolonged isolation is especially difficult for a community, a culture, that revolves around togetherness.
“We've noticed that people are starting to display anxiety,” said Louie, adding that people are struggling after being confined to their homes for the past three weeks. “We are a social community, there's always something going on the beach or at the hall; now we can't do that.”
Dick said that they make an effort to knock on the windows of the elders sitting there in their homes.
“It's tough for the little ones that can't go out to play together,” he said.
Louie said he tells people to be aware of how others are and to remind everyone that we are in this together.
“I tell everyone to take care of themselves, be safe and if you're feeling stress or anxiety, give us a call,” he said. “We're strong and we will get through this.”