The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for the Katzie First Nation community, its chief said.
Chief Grace George pointed out it has forced the band to act against their own traditional values in some ways.
“We are so interconnected, and our cultural connections have been displaced,” she said.
“We would have normally come together to share meals, celebrate, share cultural practices, and would have used our shared spaces to gather on a weekly basis for program participation, and/or to access health services.
“We have missed this social and ceremonial gathering terribly.”
The band recently faced its first outbreak when seven members were found to be infected during the first week of December.
Thankfully, all seven were able to recover without hospitalization by Dec. 23.
They are among many B.C. First Nations undergoing similar trials.
An Indigenous services report from Dec. 10 shows 145 band offices closed, 117 First Nations emergency operations centres opened, and 78 instances where bands have declared states of local emergency.
“B.C. chiefs meet with provincial health authorities, and regional authorities online on a regular basis,” George said.
“We remain connected, and continue to not only learn from one another, but to support each other as we guide our communities through this pandemic.”
She noted the connection across bands has been helpful.
“We advocate for our community needs collectively, and provide best practices with the hope to keep our communities as safe as possible.”
One initiative Katzie First Nation implemented, to give the community the best chance at remaining virus-free, was to bring schooling in-house.
The decision was made in mid-August, George said.
“We wanted to be prepared in advance for the second wave,” she explained, noting gratitude for the partnership with School District 42, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, as well as School District 36, Surrey, which includes Barnston Island.
“Our Katzie health director Allison Carcamo Parga worked directly with SD 42 acting principal of Aboriginal Education Kirsten Urdahl-Serr, and superintendent Sylvia Russell to create the foundation for the SD 42 on-site school,” George said.
The school room is being housed at the Katzie Reserve No. 1 (IR1) gym and youth centre.
The Barnston Island on-site school is being hosted at the Tetoten Wellness Centre.
“It was organized by our education councillor David Kenworthy, Education and Skills development coordinator Lisa Adams, director of instruction Aboriginal Learning Lyn Daniels, and senior Aboriginal worker Paula James,” George said.
“There was extensive policy and procedure training involved, and our internal staff organized a plan to provide breakfast, and lunch programming. Our youth staff are also supporting the on-site school programming as a means to remain connected to our children and youth.”
There are 38 students at the IR1 location, with three teachers, educational assistants and an Aboriginal support worker providing instruction for primary, intermediate and secondary students.
Organizing a functional school system was not without its bumps in the road, said acting principal Urdahl-Serr, but the students have been making the best of it.
“The students are in multi-age classrooms with their siblings and cousins,” she said.
“It is an interesting experience that they will remember as adults, as it will be the only opportunity to attend school daily in the same classroom with their family members.”
Parents have been supportive, too.
“A few of them have even asked if we can continue the school,” Urdahl-Serr, noted.
Once the province returns to Stage 1 of the framework for kindergarten to Grade 12 education, the kids will be going back to their previous schools.
The acting principal estimated that will occur in September 2021.
“We will return to classrooms in SD42 with the memories of a time well spent growing and learning together – as a larger community and as families of Katzie Nation – during a most challenging time for all.”
In addition to keeping their young on-site, the band has also been trying to stay safe by keeping others out.
Gated check-points have been erected in three places at IR1.
Getting community buy-in for the initiative was important, explained emergency operations director Ian Cowan.
“Normally for any type of law, land use plan, environmental management plan, etc., we would undertake significant community engagement to make sure the project met the needs of the Nation and its members, but because the checkpoints were in response to an emergency, we were unable to do as much outreach as we normally would,” he said.
The band posted information on its Facebook page, as well as in its weekly newsletter, and also responded to many personal calls and emails.
“The message we put out was about protecting Katzie’s most vulnerable,” Cowan said.
“We have many elders in the community and those with pre-existing health conditions so we wanted the message to focus on those folks.
Members were complaining about people not following Katzie First Nation’s safety measure orders, Cowan explained, so most people understood why the gates were a good idea.
The Emergency Operations Centre has been busy since being created at the start of the pandemic (March 2020).
Between six and 20 people help manage the centre at any given time.
It has been responsible for keeping the community up-to-date with the latest news, responding to potential floods, managing security, and coming up with COVID policies.
One of its most important roles has been keeping spirits up.
Cowan said they created a plan that addresses the mental health needs of the community.
“We have provided online counselling, weekly phone call check-ins, online games, online movie nights, and even held a gingerbread house making contest,” he said.
Spiritual health has been identified to be just as important, Cowan added.
“We are trying to keep up the sharing of traditional foods, as well as our other traditions in a safe way, like dropping off food at each residents home,” he said.
“The sharing of food is a big part of Katzie culture and something we try to continue as best we can during these trying times.”
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