People who live in remote and Indigenous communities across Canada are questioning the classification of industrial projects like mines and pipelines as essential services, especially when it appears the “business as usual” approach goes against advice to physical distance as much as possible during the pandemic.
Delee Nikal, a Wet’suwet’en band member of the Gitdumt’en clan from the Witset First Nation, travelled to Houston, B.C. for a grocery run last weekend. It’s in the Bulkley Valley, population 3,600, close to construction for Coastal GasLink’s liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline project.
She noticed a lot of trucks in a hotel parking lot and was appalled at what she saw.
“There were guys all over there. Some were standing outside, shirtless, drinking beer with each other,” Nikal told HuffPost Canada. Their out-of-province licence plates and heavy-duty gear led her to suspect they were pipeline workers. “It’s scary because they have no connection to us locals — they don’t care.”
Her uncle, Chief Dsta’hyl, whose English name is Adam Gagnon and is a wing chief of Sun House of the Laksamshu Wet’suwet’en clan, wants the pipeline work shut down. He disagrees with authorities defining industrial projects as essential services, a designation determined by provincial and territorial governments.
“They’re committing economic treason,” said Gagnon.
In Valemount, about 600 kilometres east of Houston, CN is shipping in over 100 workers next month to complete annual maintenance on its railway tracks, according to “John,” a CN maintenance worker. He requested anonymity due to job security concerns. The influx would increase Valemount’s population of 1,000 by 10 per cent.
“I’m trying to follow protocols as much as I can,” he said. “But it’s business as usual for the big industry players. Physical distancing is impossible to impose in certain working conditions here.”
John said that during morning safety meetings, at least 25 workers are tightly packed into a small space and move through a narrow hallway, often touching shoulders while walking. He can’t keep two metres from his main co-worker because they travel in the same vehicle and eat their meals in it.
“[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau and health ministers are telling people to stay home and not touch their face — so how does that work? Because this whole industry world isn’t abiding by the same rules.”
In such rural areas, temporary workers and locals shop in the same stores, or employees live with others in the community, so the risk of transmission cannot be avoided.
On Monday, officials said seven B.C. workers tested positive for the novel coronavirus after returning from an oilsands project in northern Alberta. In High River, Alta., located south of Calgary with a population of 14,000, there are now 358 confirmed COVID-19 cases linked to an outbreak at the local Cargill meat-packing plant.
John said he’s thought of quitting, but it’s a difficult choice between work and health when he has bills to pay. He said he’s not worried for himself as much as others in the region if there was an outbreak, especially those who are elderly or immuno-compromised.
Nancy Taylor, 70, who lives in the nearby town of Dunster, is avoiding shopping in Valemount for that reason.
“I think it’s a double standard for all of us in the valley to be socially isolating and sticking to the rules and they (industry) can just come and go,” said Taylor, who is statistically less likely to survive if she contracts COVID-19 at her age.
However, rail transportation is critical to keeping supply chains going, and shutting work down isn’t possible, even in a pandemic, said CN media relations manager Jonathan Abecassis.
“CN is an essential part of the many supply chains Canadians rely on to get the goods they need. As an essential service in Canada, this includes completing safety critical work to ensure a safe and efficient rail infrastructure,” he said.
CN’s pandemic plan aligns with the World Health Organization, as well as provincial and federal authorities, Abecassis said. It includes procedures for self-isolation if an employee or someone they live with has symptoms of COVID-19.
“Employees have also been instructed to respect the protocols in place to maintain a safe working environment, including physical distancing requirements especially as they work in small communities across our network,” he said in an email to HuffPost.
Adding further pressure on the small community is the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, slated to start construction in the area soon. It plans to bring in 50 employees to begin assembling a work camp south of Valemount, which will have a capacity of between 600 to 900 people.
Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton is calling for federal leaders to step in and shut down all industrial projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Are diamonds and gold really essential services right now? No,” she said, referring to mining operations still running in Canada’s North.
Industry work camps tend to be in “northern regions, or adjacent or on Indigenous communities that are extremely vulnerable,” said Ashton, who represents the sprawling riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.
These are ”regions that are completely unprepared to deal with a minimal spread [of COVID-19], let alone a surge. The idea of leaving it up to the provinces, and worst of all, leaving it up to employers whose obviously number one goal here is continued operations for profit .... is in stark contrast to what we need to be prioritizing right now, which is people’s health.”
Watch: Blackfoot doctor explains how her people are more at risk to the impact of the coronavirus. Story continues after video.
At a press conference earlier this month, N.W.T. MLA Katrina Nokleby noted, “Safety is our number one priority, but next to that is ensuring that our economy remains healthy and people feel secure.” She expressed confidence in measures taken by resource companies and called them “strong corporate citizens.”
Public health officials in N.W.T. have ordered mining, oil and gas companies to screen employees entering the territory, and the firms have enhanced cleaning and added physical distancing measures including segregating southern and northern workers, according to Nokleby.
Dominion Diamond Mines suspended operations at its Ekati site in March to “safeguard its employees” during the pandemic, while the Diavik diamond mine, owned by Rio Tinto, remains open with about 500 people on site.
“Our focus is on the health and safety of our employees and communities, and on keeping our operations running safely so we can continue to contribute to the Northwest Territories economy,” said spokesperson Matthew Klar in a statement to HuffPost. Diavik has changed the frequency of shift roster changes from two weeks to four weeks, and employees from 12 isolated northern communities or who have specific risk factors remain off-site.
In B.C.’s Bulkley Valley, Coastal GasLink is following guidelines for construction sites and industrial work camps set by the provincial health officer, such as setting a maximum of 50 workers in dining and common areas, and increasing the number of hand-washing stations on work sites.
But there’s another layer to the concerns over Coastal GasLink’s LNG pipeline project that has faded during the pandemic: hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs continue to oppose the construction running through their traditional territory.
Solidarity protests and blockades that shut down many of Canada’s transportation corridors in February built momentum, leading to an intense, three-day emergency meeting between government officials, hereditary chiefs and Wet’suwet’en elected leadership.
Then, the pandemic hit.
‘They’re out there killing the land’
Nikal and her fellow “land defenders” were forced to isolate on their home reserves to avoid the coronavirus, which First Nations are particularly vulnerable to.
“This is heartbreaking,” Nikal said, of not being able to protect her ancestors’ lands currently being “dug up” by construction workers.
“Wet’suwet’en lands are at risk, let alone the people’s health from the coronavirus,” said Kate Gunn of First Peoples Law, who represents Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders. “Many First Nations and Indigenous communities have to divert their internal capacity to keep themselves safe in this pandemic. They can’t send resources out to protect the land right now.”
It’s business as usual on the near $7-billion project slated to carry LNG through northern B.C. to export to Asian markets. This week, Coastal GasLink announced it completed a construction milestone for the first part of the pipeline route.
“They’re out there killing the land. The workers and COVID are a huge threat to us now,” said Nikal.
With files from Samantha Beattie
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the photos of the work camp inside the Morice River access point in Wet’suwet’en territory were taken in April 2020; in fact, they were taken in the fall of 2019.