Silver linings to the COVID storm for remote Bella Bella families, children and Elders

·7 min read

Living in a remote coastal community accessible only by boat or air has its unique challenges, but pandemic-related restrictions have intensified barriers, forcing these families to get creative and lean on each other more than ever.

“Our biggest challenge with COVID closures is being forced away from quality family time,” says Erin Wilson, member of Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation and mother of two young boys.

Waglisla (Bella Bella), is located on British Columbia’s Central Coast on the east coast of Campbell Island. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say B.C. drew itself over the traditional territories (which encompasses 35,553 square kilometers) of a Nation with archeological evidence tracing settlement back over 14,000 years.

The Heiltsuk First Nation has taken many measures to keep their community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, including closing their village to outsiders and asking the provincial government to do more.

Lockdown situations in the village mean curfews are implemented and families can’t visit across households. While these restrictions have impacted people all over the world, cultures with close community connection have felt the shift as a stark contrast.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s harder on us parents, our kids are very moldable,” says Wilson. “We explain why we cannot go to visit family too much because we have to keep our loved ones safe, and they follow suit.”

As the need for restrictions was assessed and adjusted by provincial health authorities, the ability to visit Elders also changed to meet adjusting protocols. During the lull of the pandemic, Wilson said they invited a guest over weekly to visit with her granny.

“This was really nice as all she wants and needs at this time of her life is family time,” Wilson says. “This week is my granny’s ninety-first birthday, we are doing a birthday celebration drive-by for her, to send her some COVID-safe wishes.”

The Heiltsuk Nation celebrated the historic opening of their big house last year. They are a tight-knit culture that conducts many matters of business with a complex feasting system, but this year, families haven’t been able to travel home to lay loved ones to rest, or potlatch together.

The community has had to “get creative” and adjust explains WIlson.

The Nation has organized a number of ‘drive-bys,’ a parade of people driving by, honking and waving, to commemorate different occasions.

“We’re creating new ways of connecting with family,” explains Wilson. “I don’t know exactly who started these but it is a great way to keep our spirits alive!”

The community uses a Facebook page to post about upcoming ‘drive-bys’ — for birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations of life — including the date, time and starting point.

Creativity is key in staying connected, says Wilson. “We also do a drop off of baked goods to our aunties/grannies every so often and give quick check-in phone calls.”

“I’ve learned that quality time with family shouldn’t be taken for granted, and the warmth of a hug can really have a huge impact on one’s mental health,” she adds. “Connection is key, even though we cannot physically be around one another.”

Jess Housty, member of the Heiltsuk and executive director of a land-based cultural education program, says the community has remained closed to outsiders, “unless they have explicit permission from the [Heiltsuk] Emergency Operations Centre.”

Since March, only residents, returning Heiltsuk members, and non-Heiltsuk whose primary residence lies in the territory, are allowed in. While members are used to flying out of the community for medical and dental appointments a few times a year, the fourteen-day self-isolation rule has decreased the number of trips.

“We’ve had to forego that for a sense of immediate safety without knowing what the long-term consequences of delaying those appointments might be,” Housty explains.

These measures have thus far been effective, with two cases in mid September promptly contained.

“We’ve had mandated masks in indoor spaces since spring,” says Housty. ”There’s a lot of community care being practiced, to make sure that we’re showing up for each other in the context of the pandemic.”

The economic impact of COVID on the community is felt deeply by some families, says Housty, and it has amplified the importance of food security.

“We know there are kids at school whose families are struggling to put food on the table,” Housty says. “Nutritious food and other key supplies are expensive here and we normally stockpile affordable supplies when we’re away. We haven’t been able to do that.”

Despite the challenges, the community has found ways to organize and address needs, including reestablishing an inte-agency directors committee. The committee, composed of representatives from every organization with a social mandate in the community, meets weekly to identify and address needs.

“We talk about patterns that we’re observing, issues that are coming up, and find ways to make sure that nobody’s slipping through the cracks across the mandates of our different programs,” Housty explains.

Housty is a mother of two boys, ages three and five and, while it has been a struggle to explain the ongoing pandemic, Housty has been moved by her sons’ strength and resilience.

“My kids are very social. They’re accustomed to being around their entire extended family and to suddenly be very limited to our home, in a much smaller bubble was a really big challenge,” she says.

A silver lining to this year’s restrictions was the deepening of the bond between the two brothers, she says.

“It was amazing to me as a mom to watch how close they became when they were together all the time.”

Housty discusses the ongoing pandemic with her sons in a gentle and clear way, she explains. She tells them why routines have changed and why the changes were needed to keep people safe.

When the daycare and schools reopened, different ages and classes were separated. There were no more common areas, entrances, or seeing each other in hallways.

“I don’t think I had realized before how important it was to my boy that he got to see his older cousins at school. The sense of pride, and connectedness he felt,” Housty says.

A conversation about her children naturally extends to a conversation about her Elders. Housty’s grandmother is 93 years-old and lives at home, as is her wish. Her children and grandchildren take daily and nightly shifts to visit and care for her, Housty explains.

“Her bubble is huge, but that is the care that she wants and expects and deserves.”

Like many families caring for their young and old, Housty’s family has taken extra precautions to care for her grandmother, without putting her at risk.

For Housty, this year has been about learning with, and through, each other.

“This situation has taught me how deeply compassionate my child is, which is just such a beautiful lesson for me,” Housty explains. “The times when I’m struggling and I’m grieving with the things that we’ve lost and the patterns and connections that feel so broken right now, I see just how much unshakable love is his little body and how ready he is to practice community care.

“And it’s just been such a blessing for me to have that little teacher in my life.”

As winter settles in on the northwest coast, Housty draws strength from the resilience of her people.

“I’m trying to settle into the rhythm of being more seasonal,” she says. “The way that our ancestors lived, to every inch of their lives, seasonally, has been helpful to think about all of the things that I can do with my family, if we’re retreating into our own little household again.”

Odette Auger, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse