Nations work to keep alcohol out of villages as part of COVID-19 prevention

Denise Titian, May 22, 2020

Wally Thomas, Chief Hohomiius, an Ahousaht Tribal Police officer, dumps out a confiscated bottle of vodka at the main dock in Ahousaht. In a measure to discourage gatherings and prevent the spread of COVID-19, Kyuquot and Ahousaht are blocking the arrival of booze during the coronavirus lockdown. (Submitted photo)

West Coast Vancouver Island, BC — 

Leadership in remote Nuu-chah-nulth villages have managed so far to prevent coronavirus outbreaks, but some in the coastal communities worry that incidents of reckless partying behaviors may jeopardize their safety.

Kyuquot is a particularly remote Nuu-chah-nulth village, accessible only by boat or float plane. Like other island First Nations, they have implemented manned posts to prevent non-residents from entering. Cynthia Blackstone, chief administrative officer of the Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h' First Nations,

said they have a post in Fair Harbour that is manned 24/7 to ensure that no non-essential travelers come to the village.

The guards are probably not terribly busy, since road travellers must first pass another manned gate at the Ehattesaht First Nation, next to Zeballos. The nations are turning away visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of the deadly virus to their communities and, more importantly, to their precious elders, who are most vulnerable.

In Kyuquot members are forbidden to travel in and out of the village unless it is necessary. A resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the nation enforces their non-essential travel rule by imposing a fine of $1,000 for those defying the order. According to the source, because it’s so difficult to leave the village, people have found a way to bring alcohol in.

People know alcohol is there when they hear the late-night parties.

“There have been two fights so far and one person got taken out by the RCMP,” said the source, who went to state that the RCMP have been called in to deal with alcohol-related domestic violence.

The source points out that when the authorities or first responders are brought in, it increases the danger of COVID-19 exposure.

So how is the alcohol coming in with such stringent travel measures in place?

“The members are ordering booze and it is delivered to the dock on our scheduled mail flights, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” said the source.

On Wednesday, May 6, the witness stated they saw nine boxes of liquor, each carrying 12 – 18 bottles, arriving via Nootka Air.

“Air Nootka has been made aware we are in a state of emergency and bringing alcohol in is not acceptable,” said the witness. The person alleges that it is probably a pilot that takes the orders for liquor and does the shopping.

“It’s concerning because there were four house parties last night,” said the witness, adding that later in the evening they inevitably hear calls for help on the VHF radio. “I’m afraid; what if they are sick (from COVID-19)?”

Scott Carlsen of Nootka Air says that his company provides delivery services to the remote communities, which includes mail, medical supplies, courier parcels and yes, care packages and other parcels to Kyuquot.

“I can’t deny some of the packages may have contain alcohol,” said Carlsen.

But he is in a difficult position.

“We want to provide a service to the community but we can’t open up packages,” said Carlsen.

He confirmed that Blackstone asked the airline to discontinue deliveries of alcohol to Kyuquot. His staff has complied by discontinuing pick-up and delivery of alcohol.

Blackstone says leadership declared a state of emergency March 22, which is in effect for two weeks. The state of emergency has been extended three times with the next review date on May 22.

To support members the nation issues monthly assistance cheques and, for residents of Kyuquot, groceries are brought in.  

“We provide emergency support for members, and there is food distribution every two weeks in Kyuquot,” said Blackstone.

Residents are given meats, vegetables, rice, flour and pet food.

Local stores have increased stock of items not provided by the nation. Blackstone says it is expensive, but it keeps people from needing to leave the community for groceries.

“Early on we opened up food fishing so that our people can have fresh salmon, halibut, and clams,” said Blackstone.

In Ahousaht, Hereditary Chief Hanuquii (Nathan Charlie) has organized a tribal police force that works to enforce a community curfew and prevent non-essential visitors from coming to the community. They check returning residents for contraband.

According to Hanuquii, the idea of tribal police came about because of the Coronavirus.

“Oldtimers and some parents wanted help with all of the booze coming in and the risk of having the virus coming in on bottles,” he added.

In the past Ahousaht had a security force. The tribal police are similar and, according to Hanuquii, have been deputized by the Ahousaht Ha’wiih, granting the same powers as Witwok.

Witwok are traditional police, a community role that goes back before the time of contact.

“In old times they would make sure everything is on order; if someone is not behaving they would be the ones doing the correcting,” said Hanuquii.

“Today we are trying to keep the peace and keep the virus out,” he added.

In order to protect residents Ahousaht has set a 10 p.m. curfew.

“I announce it on VHF every night and everyone listens,” said Hanuquii.

On April 31, following the news of a cluster of coronavirus cases in Alert Bay, Ahousaht instituted an alcohol ban on the reserve.

“We shut the harbor down, funneling boat traffic to the main dock in Ahousaht,” said Hanuqui.

Two people are stationed on every Ahousaht dock directing boats to the main dock. Once there, boats and bags are checked by the tribal police. According to Hanuquii, if alcohol is found it is dumped.

When asked if much alcohol was disposed of, Hanuqui replied, “Yes! Oh my, that first weekend we started that, we got three big garbage bags filled with vodka bottles and four flats of beer in two days.”

Even though some are angry, the Ahousaht Ha’wiih are doing what they feel is necessary to protect the people.

“It’s really important because there are 40 or 50 new babies on the reserve and our elders,” said Hanuquii. “(Coronavirus) spreads like wildfire, so we put this in effect so that we can protect the children and the elders.”

As for complaints, Hanuquii says that about 98 per cent of the people are happy with the enforcement and maybe 2 per cent are angry. “And we expected that. It will blow over once this virus lifts.”

He went on to say that this just a temporary measure and everything should go back to normal once the virus is gone.

“And we will be better prepared if the second wave comes,” said Hanuquii.

Blackstone says the idea of banning alcohol from the community during the pandemic is a complex issue.

“There are all sorts of concerns and we worry about safe withdrawals; we want to come across with more of a focus on drinking responsibly,” she said.

But she is concerned that by saying this, people may take it as permission from the leadership to drink.

“We worry about how it affects people in our community, it’s not black and white at all,” said Blackstone.

On the bright side, Nuu-chah-nulth communities have escaped COVID-19, so far.

“We haven’t had any cases of it here and want to keep it that way,” said Blackstone. “If you take care of yourself you’re taking care of your community.”