North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring is among the elected officials in the region who have taken to social media to disavow COVID-19-related racism in the community. (File photo)

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring is among the elected officials in the region who have taken to social media to disavow COVID-19-related racism in the community. (File photo)

‘Vile; filled with racism’: Officials condemn reaction to Cowichan First Nations COVID outbreak

North Cowichan Mayor Siebring, Cowichan Valley MLA Furstenau among those to speak out

Elected officials in the Cowichan Valley have taken to social media to condemn racism in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak among Cowichan Tribes.

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau are among those who have voiced their disgust with social media posts and behaviour towards members of Cowichan Tribes after the First Nation experienced a surge in cases this month.

”As you will know, I spend a fair bit of time on social media, and I’ve been extremely concerned with some of the posts I’ve been seeing in the past few days with respect to the COVID outbreak among the Cowichan Tribes community,” Siebring wrote in a post on his public page on Sunday, Jan. 10. “OK… I’m beyond ‘extremely concerned.’ I’m disappointed. And I’m pissed off.

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“Some of the posts I’ve seen are vile; filled with racism and an ‘us/them’ mentality. They are fear-based, and they are inappropriate.”

Chief and council imposed a shelter in place order for Tribes members until Jan. 22. The First Nations Health Authority said the case countwas 45 as of Saturday.

Siebring noted the response from the broader community has included demands that off-reserve employers fire any First Nations workers based on their membership in Cowichan Tribes.

“That, folks, is racism,” he wrote. “Plain and simple. And it’s wrong.”

“Because here’s the thing. Tribes is being completely transparent about their numbers — far moreso than Island Health. The FNHA has the authority to be this specific and transparent on cases, locations, etc., while the rest of us, (including non-First Nations elected officials) don’t even know specifically where cases are unless we hear from specific institutions like Superstore or the Chemainus High School.”

Siebring lamented that Cowichan Tribes’ transparency is being rewarded with racist rhetoric and demands for segregation. He also pointed out that COVID-19 was in the Cowichan Valley long before the outbreak in Cowichan Tribes was announced.

“But here’s the thing,” he wrote. “For 10 months, COVID was present in the non-First Nations community. The first case among Cowichan Tribes wasn’t identified until New Year’s Day. But NOT ONCE during that 10-month period did we ever hear of Tribes members looking at every non-indigenous person with the assumption that they had COVID. We didn’t hear any calls for all white people to stay away from their jobs until the pandemic is over. I didn’t see a single social media post or news article where Cowichan Tribes members were complaining that it was ‘those white people’ who were spreading the virus all over the Island.

“And yet, now that the numbers have changed, that’s the kind of rhetoric we’re starting to see. Folks, we are better than this. And it has to stop.”

The mayor acknowledged that his words echoed those posted by Cowichan Tribes councillor Stephanie Atleo a day earlier.

“Not once during this did we look at every non-indigenous person and assume you had COVID,” Atleo had written. “We did not tell any of you to come back to work or to our businesses when the pandemic is over. Not once did we comment on any news article about the spread and say ‘oh those “white” people are spreading it on the Island!’”

Furstenau asked the wider community to “show humanity in their interactions with Cowichan Tribes members as they navigate this scary and dangerous time.”

“When the news broke that cases were on the reserve, and the shelter-in-place order was issued, my first thought was to the health of the elders, and my second thought was to the reaction of those who still choose to discriminate based on race,” she wrote.

“There is no difference between how these cases are being handled and how the cases in the broader community are being handled — with the exception that we know the number of cases.”

“There is no room for racism in our collective effort in returning to zero cases in this community. We have two choices as a community right now: to unite in our effort to protect our most vulnerable from this devastating virus, or to turn on our neighbours at the moment they need us most. We are asking you to choose to be united, and encourage others who may be reacting in fear to do the same. We have done it before and there has never been a more critical time to do it again.”

Cowichan Tribes councillor Stuart Pagaduan also put out a call for unity in a post to his personal Facebook page that was shared more than 100 times.

“Rather than focus on the ignorance and hatred of people in our community let’s acknowledge and celebrate the friendships we already have. In the School District and as a councillor I’ve had the privilege to meet some beautiful people over the years. These people are not Indigenous but I choose to call them my friends and esteemed colleagues. I feel the need to stand up and push back against all the discrimination and ugliness. I have many good friends out there and we need to hear your voice and opinion. Thank you for taking the time to understand our community and history of our people.”

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