Metlakatla and Lax Kw’alaams First Nations issued statement on May 14, 2020, stating that a Hwy 16 road checkpoint on reserve land could happen next week. (Ministry of Transportation)

COVID-19 checkpoint on Highway 16 could happen as early as next week

Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla call for meeting with the premier and a ban on non-essential travel

As the Victoria Day long weekend approaches, the leaders of the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla Nations are calling on Premier John Horgan to meet with them and take a stronger stance against non-essential travel to their communities.

“The Government of B.C. has simply asked the public to stay local. We want them to tell people they must stay away. We are telling visitors to stay away and may even have to demand it to keep our communities safe,” said Garry Reece, Lax Kw’alaams mayor in a joint media release with the Metlakatla First Nation.

Should Reece and Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton deem it necessary, the Lax Kw’alaams could set up a checkpoint on their I.R. 26 Reserve lands that cross Highway 16, about 60 kilometres west of Terrace at Salvus.

The provincial highways ministry of confirmed that the province has no tenure for the highway passage through the reserve, effectively placing it within the control of the Lax Kw’alaams.

“To protect our community, we are considering setting up an information checkpoint on Lax Kw’alaams reserve on Highway 16 as early as next week,” said Reece in the joint release. “Our goal would be to educate people on why they need to stay in their own communities rather than entering Prince Rupert area unless absolutely necessary. Later, if needed, we may also set up a blockade of non-essential travel.”

The proposed checkpoint falls within the Skeena electoral district. Member of the Legislative Assembly for Skeena, Ellis Ross, said he has not spoken to Garry Reece about the issue. “It’s a bit of a grey area right, you are talking about federally managed lands versus provincial managed lands, so nobody seems to have an answer on whether it’s lawful or not.”

The joint release said that the checkpoint is not intended to restrict the movement of northwest B.C. residents or disrupt the flow of goods on Highway 16. The prospect of a hard blockade has left Terrace businesses feeling anxious due to the significant portion of business that comes from Prince Rupert.

READ MORE: ‘Everybody will feel it’: Proposed Lax Kw’alaams road blockade could hurt Terrace businesses

“I understand the business community when they’ve got to open up, plus they’ve got to figure out their own future whether or not they can stay in business. So I understand the pressure they are under,” said Ross.

“And then you also have to balance that with the fears that the smaller communities are having. It seems to be a mismatch of different amount of measures in terms of trying to protect our communities and Lax Kw’alaams’ proposal now is just another one of those measures.”

The long weekend brings with it phase two of B.C.’s Restart Plan, which includes rescheduling elective surgeries and the opening of the retail sector, restaurants, museums and more. Social distancing guidelines will still apply and most provincial parks are open for day use only.

Reece and Leighton are concerned about an influx of recreational anglers coming to their territory from other parts of B.C. and Alberta to fish. In addition to a meeting with the premier, the leaders are asking that the Government of B.C. tell people to stay local when they buy fishing licences and to assist them in asking the Department of Fisheries and Oceans not to sell saltwater fishing licences for the region to non-locals.

“We are looking at options for further discussion of these issues,” said Jen Holmwood, deputy director of communications at the premier’s office in an email.

“From a non-political stance I have to say it’s pretty tough to manage five-million people in a large geographical area, we are all spread out and it’s hard to monitor every single person,” said Ross. I think it falls to every municipal government, village government, regional district government to figure out how to protect ourselves because the B.C. Government can’t be everywhere.”

Also, the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla are asking that the government consider providing more healthcare resources to the region to better manage potential COVID-19 cases.

The idea of a blockade or checkpoint was first communicated publicly by Reece on April 30, in a joint release with several other First Nations and municipal leaders in the area. On May 3, Reece said during a webinar hosted by the Council of the Haida Nation that more than 1,000 Lax Kw’alaams members, many of them elders, live in Prince Rupert and that non-essential travel to the city should be stopped.

Lax Kw’alaams is on a peninsula on the northwest coast, about 20 kilometres north of Prince Rupert with access limited to ferry or floatplane. It has resumed regular ferry service and isolation is no longer required in the community. Metlakatla is five kilometres north of Prince Rupert and is also accessible by ferry or floatplane only.

Both the Lax Kw’alaams and Metlakatla said in the release that they are looking forward to welcoming visitors to their territory when it is safe to do so.

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