Indigenous leaders call for pipeline shutdown over COVID-19 fears

As construction continues on the controversial, billion-dollar Coastal Gaslink pipeline in northern British Columbia, Indigenous communities living near the route fear that out-of-town workers could spread COVID-19 to the resource-strapped region.

First Nations leaders, many of whom supported the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the project, are now calling on the federal and provincial governments to shut down the construction. In an open letter, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said the ongoing construction heightens the risk of transmission and puts both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities at risk.

“The risks posed by continued work on the Coastal GasLink project are ones that were not consented to, and ones that leaders and officials raised warnings about in advance of the project’s approval,” the group said in its letter.

Like most provinces, B.C has deemed construction projects an essential service. Provincial Medical Health Officer Bonnie Henry has said it isn’t safe or practical to shut down ongoing construction projects.

Coastal Gaslink has camps dotted across northern British Columbia to accommodate its workforce, which is projected to reach 2,500 workers once the project reaches its peak construction period.

These days, roughly 100 workers remain on the job, Coastal Gaslink said, down from about 1,000 before the coronavirus pandemic. To help prevent the spread of the virus, common areas are now restricted and the company said it is disinfecting equipment.

The company says local residents and contractors are being hired and that new employees won’t be moving in to the company’s accommodations. On-site medics are monitoring workers’ health using both temperature checks and health questionnaires. Workers must keep a distance of at least two metres from each other in the dining room and common areas, and each worker has their own bedroom and bathroom.

But Indigenous leaders say those measures don’t go far enough. Many of the workers come from out of town and live in close quarters at construction camps, and there are fears that they could spark an outbreak.

Speaking on behalf of the union, Chief Judy Wilson said the construction camps should not be allowed to stay open in the middle of a pandemic.

“If Trudeau is saying lock down self-isolate, all those things are important, why are the industrial resource camps not heeding those precautions?” Wilson told CTV News.

“This is serious. It needs to be shut down.”

In a separate open letter, the union has also called on the government to reduce fossil fuel production and exports, invest in renewable energy and not use emergency relief money to bail out the struggling oil and gas sector.

The issue comes down to limited healthcare resources, says Jennifer Wickham, a representative of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

“In the north, we have really limited medical services as it is. So if anything were to happen, it would just overwhelm the limited services that we already have,” she said.

Across Canada, concerns have been raised about overloading rural and northern hospitals with unnecessary visitors. In British Columbia, authorities have asked residents to only travel when necessary.

While many businesses have been forced to close during the pandemic, construction and energy-related projects continue across Canada, including in OntarioAlberta and Quebec, where they are deemed essential services.

Earlier this year, the Coastal Gaslink pipeline was at the centre of a national controversy after rail blockades were established across the country in solitary with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who opposed the pipeline being built on their land. The blockades triggered mass layoffs and prompted high-level meetings between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s senior ministers and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.