Nestled in the Peace River Valley in northeast British Columbia, almost 900 workers continue construction on BC Hydro’s Site C megadam project, which will generate enough energy to power about 450,000 houses per year after its scheduled completion in 2025.
BC Hydro has pushed for the dam despite a slew of controversies over its high greenhouse gas emissions and alleged disregard for wildlife habitat and First Nations hunting sites.
Development has had to scale back considerably amid the looming threat of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), BC Hydro said, but hundreds of industry workers are still on the ground doing “critical” jobs, like building tunnels and installing spillway gates.
Now, after Site C reported that several of its workers fell ill with cold- and flu-like symptoms, a dozen of those workers are in quarantine, following the advice of public health officials who are urging Canadians with COVID-19 symptoms to limit their exposure to others.
News of the sick workers reached settler and Indigenous communities both near and far, and people are worried COVID-19 could eventually spread fast if development sites aren’t shut down immediately.
“It’s not safe. What are people not getting about this?” said Connie Greyeyes, a member of Bigstone Cree Nation who lives in Fort St. John, located 20 minutes from Site C.
The coronavirus "actually reminded me of first contact (between Indigenous communities and European settlers) when we didn't have disease and it was brought to us—like smallpox," Greyeyes said.
"Indigenous people have a blood memory of the pain that's been caused."
Reports suggest development sites have already resulted in the spread of disease. The Mount Milligan copper and gold mine, about 60 kilometres from Nak’azdli Whut’en, a First Nation in north-central B.C., employs hundreds. According to nurses in the area, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases has correlated with the presence of the mine workers.
“We’ve been taught how to survive and sustain ourselves,” Greyeyes said. “It’s going to boil down to people taking matters into their own hands and closing their borders.”
Several First Nations have already closed their borders to avoid contracting the virus. Six Nations of the Grand River shut down its borders to non-band members after it confirmed two COVID-19 cases on Friday.
Indigenous advocates like Greyeyes are calling for companies with sites across Canada to stop development and send resource extraction workers home until COVID-19 risk decreases, so that they aren’t unnecessarily exposed to workers, most of whom are transient.
The worry is that the workers still at development sites and “man camps,” the temporary units that house them, near Indigenous communities will increase the likelihood of the virus spreading into those communities. Indigenous women and men often work at the same sites as development workers, cooks, and cleaners, and transient workers often socialize in communities adjacent to their development sites.
So far, there have been no reports of resource extraction workers testing positive for COVID-19, at Site C or elsewhere. But people fear it’s only a matter of time.
“There’s only so much social distancing you can do if you’re in a ‘man camp’ or industry site,” Greyeyes said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
The fear is compounded by the fact that many remote or isolated Indigenous communities across Canada are more susceptible to a COVID-19 outbreak because many don’t have clean running water or robust access to healthcare.
Earlier this month, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced $305 million in COVID-19 relief funding for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities that will go towards medical supplies and emergency planning.
“We can’t tell people to wash their hands if they don’t have clean drinking water,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler told VICE earlier this month, adding that NAN has 18 active water advisories.
“We can’t tell them to go see a health professional or nurse when we don’t have that in our nursing stations. We have very limited capacity with equipment,” Fiddler said.
Even Fort St. John—with a population of about 20,000 and a modest-sized hospital—would struggle if an influx of sick workers showed up, said one Fort St. John resident, Shelley Oullette.
“Even if 10 people from that camp were to be admitted to our hospital it would strain it,” Oullette said.
Oullette added that workers often drive into the city. If a worker carrying COVID-19 visited and infected too many people, “we wouldn’t have any equipment for it,” she said.
Greyeyes said companies should send workers home, at least until the threat of COVID-19 is contained.
Fort St. John councillors and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs want Site C shut down.
"Given the close quarters and inevitable contact points at the (worker camp), an outbreak of COVID-19 would be disastrous and with dire implications for nearby communities, including First Nation communities," a statement from UBCIC said.
In a statement to VICE, Tanya Fish, a BC Hydro spokesperson, said construction will continue at Site C unless public health authorities say otherwise.
The fear of virus exposure is echoed across other mining and pipeline sites, especially in remote or isolated regions with limited access to medical care.
Reports of anxious resource development workers have also surfaced, citing fears around disease and job security. According to Bloomberg, oilsands workers are bracing for a “hellish” COVID-19 outbreak.
“If it’s coming in, it’s coming in,” one oilsands worker told Bloomberg. “There’s no stopping it once it’s here.”
Man camps were already dangerous
Kanahus Manuel is a Secwepemc woman who lives in Blue River, British Columbia and spearheads Tiny House Warriors, a project that builds small homes along the proposed 1,150 kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline route to block its construction in unceded Secwepemc territory.
A statement from Trans Mountain Media Relations said non-essential workers have been sent home and non-essential travel has been suspended, but it’s business as usual on the site.
“Everybody else that I know is at home working and then Trans Mountain (pipeline) workers are out there working. Alberta tar sands workers? Working,” Kanahus said.
Greyeyes said she’s particularly concerned about reports of sick workers because resource extraction sites are already dangerous enough; high concentrations of transient workers near Indigenous communities have resulted in several cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, according to a report published by Amnesty International with support from Greyeyes.
“If (companies) can’t enforce policies to stop abusing women, how will they enforce rules to keep people apart during the pandemic?” Manuel said, echoing Greyeyes’ concerns.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford characterized mining workers as “essential” when he introduced a province-wide shut down of all non-essential businesses last week. B.C. released a list of essential businesses, which also include development workers, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is expected to follow suit by dubbing oil workers “essential” as well.
“I don’t think that’s very essential right now,” Manuel said. “Human life is very essential.”
Wet’suwet’en, the nation currently in talks over the Coastal GasLink pipeline, has also called for Coast GasLink to remove all workers from the unceded territory as the pandemic rages on.
Many Indigenous peoples don’t trust the government to ensure the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t affect them disproportionately, said Sii-am Hamilton, an organizer with Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en.
“There’s a lot of fear,” Hamilton said. “Even if no one gets sick, when we have these pandemics, Indigenous people have a blood memory of the pain that’s been caused.”
For now, industry in and around Indigenous communities is not stopping.
“If they really did care about Indigenous life they’d stop work on the construction,” Manuel said. “If they cared about human life, they’d stop work on construction.”
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