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Man stands next to sign that reads 'Attention: Xeni Gwet'in First Nation is requesting that only local traffic and persons conducting business on behalf of the community go past this point'
In April 2020 all six Tŝilhqot’in communities decided to erect checkpoints to monitor and regulate travel to and from their reserves. (Keith Koepke), Author provided (no reuse)

How ‘colonialism by paper cuts’ has undermined Indigenous pandemic leadership

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tŝilhqot’in National Government (TNG) in British Columbia immediately began preparations for emergency response.

As part of its rapid response, TNG secured contracts with wholesale distributors for food and cleaning supplies to be distributed by staff to community members. This direct delivery reduced community risk of exposure by avoiding having multiple families travel into urban centres, ensured food security for self-isolating households and provided support for those who lost employment.

But the supplies were held up. The issue? A forklift.

The Nation’s emergency response was hampered by waiting for British Columbia’s provincial funding approval through the Emergency Support Service Program to rent a forklift to move pallets of food off the delivery truck.

Requiring that approval is an unnecessary administrative burden. It is a form of colonialism by “paper cuts,” an expression that gained some attention after the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released. The term captures how policy and bureaucracy quietly perpetuate colonialism.

One staff member observed: “It sounds like a crazy world where you need approval for a forklift before you can give food to communities in the middle of a pandemic, but those are the types of conversations that we needed to have.”

This staff member spoke to us for our Tŝilhqot’in-led research project on the COVID-19 pandemic, which documented how the Nation exercised its laws and jurisdiction to keep its citizens safe. We are University of British Columbia researchers and a Tŝilhqot’in citizen from ʔEsdilagh, who work with the Nation on emergencies.

Relying on dozens of interviews during the first wave of the pandemic, we produced a detailed report on the Tŝilhqot’in response, Dada Nentsen Gha Yatastɨg/ Tŝilhqot’in in the Time of COVID (which translated means, “I am going to tell you about a very bad disease”).

One of the clear themes of this research is that the minutiae of bureaucratic policy and procedure perpetuates colonialism. Subtle colonialism undermined a fully Tŝilhqot’in-led pandemic response.

Tŝilhqot’in jurisdiction over emergency management

The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is comprised of six Tŝilhqot’in communities spread over a large swath of territory in the central interior of British Columbia. The Nation exercises jurisdiction over the whole of its traditional, unceded territory. It is known for a 2014 landmark victory at the Supreme Court of Canada, where the court declared Aboriginal title to a portion of its territory — the first and still only instance of a Canadian court making a declaration of Aboriginal title.

The decision is one important chapter in the Tŝilhqot’in Nation’s ongoing work to transition to full governance of its territory.

Two Indigenous people (one male, one female) stand around orange ribbon and orange ties.
Tŝilhqot’in Women’s Circle Ceremony. (Laureen Carruthers), Author provided (no reuse)

The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is also a leader in Indigenous emergency management. The Nation negotiated a first-of-its-kind tripartite Collaborative Emergency Management Agreement with B.C. and Canada in 2018, precipitating provincewide agreements in recognition of First Nations.

Previously, we worked with the Nation to document its experiences with the 2017 wildfires and to understand how jurisdictional challenges and gaps impeded an Indigenous-led emergency response.

Read more: How Indigenous leadership is protecting communities from climate disasters

Since then, B.C. has enacted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which affirms the self-determining rights of Indigenous Peoples. The province is now working to align its laws with the act, including its legislation for emergency management. Canada is also contemplating legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

These legislative steps mirror some positive and noticeable changes through the country’s pandemic response. Canada and B.C. prioritized Indigenous Peoples for COVID-19 vaccination. Canada provided direct (though limited) funding to Indigenous communities with few strings attached to allow flexibility. And B.C. First Nations have been able to maintain ongoing dialogue with high-level provincial and federal officials throughout the pandemic.

An Indigenous man gets a vaccinne in his right arm
Indigenous peoples received priority vaccination during Canada’s pandemic response. (Tŝilhqot’in National Government), Author provided

Colonialism by paper cuts

Our research with the Tŝilhqot’in on the pandemic highlights these improvements and how they have had a tangible effect on the Nation’s pandemic response. But it also highlights how individual racism and historic and ongoing systemic discrimination undermine Tŝilhqot’in leadership in pandemic response. Our report documents how the Nation relied on knowledge of past epidemics and acted creatively and nimbly to implement protective measures against COVID-19 in spite of enormous constraints.

One of the resounding themes that emerged from our research was that, despite important advances, colonialism persists in subtle ways — through the labyrinth of hidden practices and policies that require Tŝilhqot’in staff to learn, navigate, negotiate and advocate for change.

One example of this is how the Nation is forced to operate on multiple jurisdictional planes. While leadership exercises its inherent jurisdiction as a self-determining nation with a distinct governance structure, it also interfaces with the Canadian state as six separate band councils. While TNG co-ordinates emergency management across the communities, pandemic funding was initially distributed only to the band councils, neglecting the need for Nation-wide funding and co-ordination.

And yet TNG had to seek recognition as an emergency operations centre and compete with other organizations for separate federal funding. At the same time, the complex needs of the Tŝilhqot’in during the pandemic — needs which are the products of colonialism — require B.C. and Canada to take on active supporting roles. This means that for any given issue (infrastructure, health and wellness, etc), TNG must negotiate with both provincial and federal agencies. Doing so effectively requires new political infrastructure, new government-to-government negotiations and more Tŝilhqot’in citizens and staff channelled into those roles.

A forklift gets food from a delivery truck
The Tŝilhqot’in National Government worked hard to get food delivered to its communities. (Tŝilhqot’in National Government), Author provided

This produces a crushing administrative burden. It is a form of colonialism by “paper cuts.”

It’s an expression that captures the subtle and insidious ways in which colonization manifests on the ground. Communities with limited capacity must expend those limited resources reacting to the policies and practices of the Canadian state by, for instance, spending hours in administrative limbo seeking approval for a forklift.

This bureaucracy diverts staff from other pressing community needs and impedes the advancement of the community’s priorities. Leadership and staff must continually advocate for what Indigenous leaders know is needed, rather than provincial and federal agencies validating at first instance the knowledge and insight from the communities.

Supporting Indigenous protective measures

In April 2020, all six Tŝilhqot'in communities decided to erect checkpoints to monitor and regulate travel to and from their reserves.

Leadership determined, after consultation with Elders and community, that these were the best measures for keeping people safe. Staffing these checkpoints, however, fell between the cracks of funding sources. No-strings federal funding had been quickly exhausted meeting basic needs and checkpoints were not eligible for the province’s reservoir of emergency response funding.

Months of advocacy by the Tŝilhqot’in and other B.C. First Nations eventually led to a policy change in November that made First Nations checkpoints eligible for provincial emergency funding. By then the Tŝilhqot’in communities had decommissioned their checkpoints due to lack of secure funding. When the second wave hit, however, the Tŝilhqot’in revived the checkpoints and TNG was able to access funding. It turns out, then, that supporting the judgement of the Indigenous leadership was possible all along.

By the next emergency, this should be the baseline, not the hard-fought exception.

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