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)

Cowichan Valley leaders condemn COVID-related racism

Mayor Siebring, 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.

“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.”

The First Nations Health Authority has publicly acknowledged the outbreak and the number of cases within the Cowichan Tribes community, which was 45 as of Saturday. As a result, chief and council imposed a shelter in place order for members.

Siebring noted that the response from the broader commnity 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 more so 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.

“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.

“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.”

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 Sschool 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.”

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