Hesquiaht leadership is raising concerns after two groups of campers were spotted in their territory on the Feb. 14. B.C. Family Day weekend, despite widespread public notices that their territory is closed during the pandemic.
In June 2020, BC Parks closed its two provincial parks near Hesquiaht communities.
“Due to the COVID-19 response, BC Parks has fully closed this protected area including all related services and facilities,” stated the BC Parks website. “This includes all associated access, e.g.; all facilities, campsites, trails, parking lots, beaches, docks and marine buoys.”
According to Hesquiaht Elected Chief Joshua Charleson, he received a report from his forest monitor of seeing visitors during a routine patrol.
“He was up patrolling near Stewardson logging camp when he noticed three Tofino residents being dropped off at the dock,” Charleson told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
The monitor, who happens to be a Hesquiaht hereditary chief, approached the visitors and was told that they live in Tofino. The three visitors had bicycles and were carrying surfboards and dry bags full of camping gear.
They left Stewardson Inlet and biked about eight kilometres over a rough logging road to Hesquiaht Point. Charleson said that the road is not maintained and is impassable by vehicles due to washouts and landslides.
The forestry patrol noted another boat tied up to the Stewardson dock, but nobody was around. The patrol left the area for a short period of time. When he returned, he witnessed two people boarding the boat and leaving. It is believed they camped somewhere in Hesquiaht territory overnight.
Charleson said the incident was reported to the RCMP Ahousaht detachment. The RCMP responded to Stewardson Inlet, but by the time they got there nobody was around. Charleson said weather conditions were too treacherous to go to Hesquiaht Harbour.
On Tuesday, Feb. 16, Charleson’s father Stephen, a resident at Hesquiaht Harbor, went to Hesquiaht Point to investigate after hearing of what happened at Stewardson Inlet. According to Joshua, his father found evidence of recent a campsite.
“There were trees cut, branches flattened down, and the fire was still smoldering,” said Charleson.
He went on to say that it wasn’t just a little campfire, but that it looked like it had been a big bonfire. To add insult to injury, the campers left some of their trash behind.
“This is very clear disrespect with a global pandemic going on and for Hesquiaht nation,” said Charleson. He noted that two families live in Hesquiaht Harbour representing a total of five people – three of them elders. All five people have received first shots of COVID-19 vaccine and are awaiting second shots.
Even though Hesquiaht territories are vast and chances of Hesquiaht members encountering a visitor is low, Charleson remains concerned for his people.
“The fear is that it is so remote, if anything was to happen to visitors, the only people to respond would be Hesquiaht residents, potentially exposing them infection,” he said
Charleson said Hesquiaht nation is working in partnership with health authorities and provincial parks. They are keeping their territories closed until the pandemic is over and they get the go-ahead to open from the Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry.
“We are not willing to risk safety of our people,” said Charleson.
Hesquiaht First Nation remains in a state of emergency due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hesquiaht First Nation has communicated to the public through various channels since the start of the pandemic that all of Hesquiaht First Nation’s Hahoolthi (territory) are closed to all non-essential and non- Hesquiaht resident travel,” said Charleson.
“[We have] gotten to the point of declining entry to our own members to protect our communities in Hesquiaht Hahoolthi,” stated Charleson. “(We) do not want our nation to suffer because of the actions of individuals that believe the closure does not apply to them.”
He asked that all people respect the closure.
“Our health and well-being are the top priority for us all,” he said, adding that he hopes that one day soon they can happily reopen their Hesquiaht Hahoolthi to the general public.
According to BC Parks, anyone found in a closed park will be evicted and could face a $115 fine. Most day-use areas will re-open to the public on May 14, 2021.