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COVID-19: Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation asks Tofino businesses for support as emergency funding runs dry

“We need to pay for the work they do. It’s such important work.”
Owner of Tofino Sea Kayaking Natasha Baert-Hockin stands in front of an array of Tribal Parks souvenirs at her kayak centre. The longtime Tribal Parks supporter says if Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation hadn’t opened their territory to tourism, her business would have had to shut down. (Nora O’Malley photo)

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation (TFN) leaders have asked Tofino business owners to provide financial support to their Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) by way of a donation to the Tribal Parks Allies program.

TFN, whose territory extends through Tofino, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to Kennedy Lake, recommends local businesses charge patrons a voluntary contribution of one per cent to Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks.

“In spite of the June 9 declaration from the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council stating that the Nuu-chah-nulth territories would remain closed to protect vulnerable people in our communities against COVID-19, the Tla-oqui-aht First Nation decided to support a soft opening,” reads a July 31 press release from TFN Chief Moses Martin.

The neighbouring Nuu-chah-nulth communities of Ahousaht and Hesquiaht remain closed to visitors.

“Since the province entered Phase 3, Tofino has returned to near peak pre-COVID summer occupancy levels. Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks and Fisheries have heard and experienced numerous complaints of unsafe activities and practices in the Tribal Parks,” Martin notes in the press release.

Natasha Baert-Hockin owns Tofino Sea Kayaking, a supporter of the Tribal Parks Allies program since it was founded more than 10 years ago. She told the Westerly News Ahousaht’s closure nearly put her established kayak centre out of business.

“Had the Tribal Parks done the same as Ahousaht, I would have had to shut down our business. We are literally surviving because they opened their territory,” said Baert-Hockin. Tofino Sea Kayaking charges a mandatory $4 add-on fee for guests that visit the Big Trees on Meares Island in TFN territory.

“Tla-o-qui-aht built the trail there. We need to pay for the work they do. It’s such important work. If they hadn’t done that I think all the trees would be dead by now,” she said.

TFN’s call for support comes at a critical time for the coastal First Nations community. Their funding from the federal government for EOC operations is nearly exhausted, and it is unclear if additional emergency federal funding is on the way.

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns sent a letter to Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Affairs on Aug. 6 requesting another round of EOC funding for TFN.

“The urgency of this situation may lead the Nation to close its territories to external access, which will have serious consequences for local businesses and tourism, as I am sure you can appreciate,” states the letter from Johns.

“I’m hoping that Minister Miller will support the community and their needs immediately,” he said.

Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Administrator Saya Masso said expenses for TFN’s EOC include wages for health information checkpoints (one at the entrance of Ty-Histanis and another at Opitsaht), food supplement and food bank expenses, personal protective equipment and sanitation costs.

“As we have returned to pre-COVID peak summer occupancy levels in and around Tofino, and as these guests become increasingly relaxed about COVID-19 precautions, the need to have strong community support measures in place is more important than ever,” said Masso.

In 2019, Tofino whale watching company Ocean Outfitters invested $227,000 to help Tla-o-qui-aht restore the Tranquil Watershed, a parcel of salmon habitat within the Tribal Park.

“We need to recognize that this isn’t just a place of great beauty where we are privileged to work and to play, but the territories of Indigenous Peoples who have lived here, gardened here, and governed for multiple generations. Ocean Outfitters wants to forge respectful relationships and participate in rebuilding systems that provide prosperity and certainty for everyone. Being active Tribal Parks Allies is one way to support the self-determination of Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, and to relieve some pressures of colonial society that remain and continue to produce inequality for Indigenous peoples. Supporting Tribal Parks is active reconciliation,” wrote Ocean Outfitters general manager Ocean Simone Shine in an email.

Masso notes the more businesses they have come on board with the Tribal Park Allies program, the more it will set the region on a sustainable path.

“It’s for people coming here to enjoy the bounty of Clayoquot Sound,” he said.

Baert-Hockin thinks the Tribal Parks Allies program could be a world-class initiative that would only enhance the local tourism economy.

“Clayoquot opening up about is mutual support. They are supporting our business and we are supporting their Tribal Parks. [Tla-o-qui-aht] opening up and working with businesses, it was such a relief. For me as a business to go out there had they closed it, I would have literally decided to close the business. Their decision has directly kept my business alive,” said Baert-Hockin.

Tofino vacationers probably won’t mind paying the extra Tribal Parks fee, Baert-Hockin notes.

“One per cent? People don’t even think about. But the impact will be massive if everyone jumped on board,” she said.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne supports the program.

“I’m very encouraged by the conversations taking place between Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and local businesses and community leaders, it is part of the difficult and rewarding work of reconciliation. The Tribal Park Allies program compels us to consider new ways of explicitly acknowledging and valuing the services that local ecosystems provide us to sustain our lives and our livelihoods – which is uncomfortable for some and inspiring for others. I’m going to continue to support the program and the dialogue it is bringing to our region,” said Osborne in an email.

A message to Tourism Tofino was not returned by press time.

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Nora O'Malley

About the Author: Nora O'Malley

Nora O'Malley studied journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
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