Musqueam set up checkpoints to prevent spread of COVID-19

Three checkpoints went up two weeks ago on band’s reserve in southwest Vancouver

The Musqueam Indian Band has set up checkpoints around its reserve in southwest Vancouver in an effort to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus in the nation's community.

Laurence Paul, the band’s security manager, said “local traffic only” signs and pop-up tents were erected two weeks ago on the band’s reserve lands, where about 800 members and their families reside.

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So far, none has contracted COVID-19.

“We have no confirmed cases down here, and it’s wonderful and we’d like to keep it that way,” said Paul, as he joined two band members Wednesday at a checkpoint at Salish Drive and Stautlo Avenue.

He said some Musqueam families have three generations of people living in one house, which is a fact that greatly concerns Paul when considering how swiftly the virus can travel.

“That is a huge reason why we want to keep people off the reserve because one family can affect three generations, and friends and family after that,” he said, as cars rolled up to the checkpoint.

“It could literally get out of control down here.”

The band’s reserve is part of its wider territory that includes large parcels of land where non-Musqueam residents live as leaseholders and have to pass through the reserve to get to their homes, as was witnessed by the Courier Wednesday.

The band has supplied those residents with either decals or small signs emblazoned with Musqueam’s arrowhead emblem, which get placed on a windshield, or on a dashboard.

This way, residents don’t have to stop each time at the checkpoints, including the others at Stautlo Avenue and Crown Street, and at West 51st Avenue and Hum-lu-sum Drive.

Paul emphasized the band can’t prevent people from traveling through the reserve, but members are telling joggers, cyclists and others not to pass through the territory if it’s not essential.

Allowances have been made for construction crews, landscapers and food delivery drivers, with members reminding them of the importance of physical distancing.

Generally, Paul said, visitors have been understanding of the reason for the checkpoints, although some have refused to stop, including the driver of a Honda Civic that blew past members recently.

“Our guys got the licence plate number,” said Paul, noting the Musqueam’s Vancouver police liaison officer is following up with the driver.

Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow said the band has closed its two golf courses, marina, sports fields and longhouse to adhere to provincial orders prohibiting gatherings.

Sparrow said he was proud of his community members for taking the stay-home message seriously, with streets virtually empty except when people want to get some fresh air or travel for groceries.

“If everybody’s done what our community’s done, I think we’re going to come out of this [pandemic] a lot faster,” said the chief, who continues to conduct business through conference calls.

Sparrow estimated 20 per cent of band members on the reserve are elders, some with health issues. He’s keenly aware the deaths from COVID-19 in B.C. have largely involved people 70 years old and older.

“Our elders have been there for us in the past, and helping us and guiding us, and now it’s our turn to return the favour and make sure they’re as safe as possible,” the chief said.

Musqueam member Wade Grant said he too was worried about the band’s elders, noting his parents — Wendy Grant-John and Howard Grant — are both in their 70s.

“Those are our knowledge keepers,” Grant said by telephone Wednesday.

“If we lose them, we lose the connections we have. That’s something that really resonates with all First Nations. We’re trying to revitalize our culture, revitalize our language, and the only way to do that is communicate and record what we have from our elders.”

Grant is a member of the First Nations Health Council and learned Wednesday there had been no reports from First Nations in B.C. of members testing positive for the virus.

Still, he added, the pandemic is a reminder of the devastation that disease can have on an Indigenous community, with the smallpox epidemic in the 1800s killing thousands of Indigenous people in B.C.

He echoed what Paul said about the velocity of the virus.

“We’re within in a two-minute walk of our farthest cousin, and because our community is so small, the virus could spread faster than the outside population,” Grant said.

Grant is at home with his two primary school-aged children, where they are participating in electronic learning set up by their school.

Grant and his family, along with other Musqueam members, have also participated nightly in the growing chorus across Vancouver of people celebrating health care workers.

But Grant has added a twist to the cheering and banging of drums. His children choose four rock songs that could potentially be played at the designated cheer time at 7 p.m.

He then posts the selections to Twitter and Facebook to poll his friends and followers.

“Last night it was Kung Fu Fighting, and tonight it looks like Sweet Caroline — it’s got a massive lead right now,” said Grant, who also used Twitter this week for an April Fools’ joke that had Mayor Kennedy Stewart returning all of Vancouver back to Musqueam.

The checkpoints, meanwhile, are expected to stay up indefinitely, as coronavirus cases continue to climb. As of Thursday, 1,121 people in B.C. had tested positive for COVID-19 and 31 had died.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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