COVID-19 has found its way to almost every corner of Canada.
However, a group of RCMP officers in British Columbia is doing everything it can to make sure the respiratory virus doesn't gain a strong foothold in remote Indigenous communities.
"The communities we serve are isolated and very small. If COVID-19 ever arrived, it could be devastating," says Cst. David Kokesch of the RCMP's West Coast Marine Services. "We want to continue our work by staying away (physically) as much as we can but by also keeping connected and supporting them, too."
In March, British Columbia declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic.
Indigenous leaders in many remote areas initially asked community members to refrain from travelling in and out, and for visitors to stay away due to a lack of immediate access to medical facilities and staff to respond to a COVID outbreak.
"Essential services had to continue so a plan to support those remote Indigenous communities was developed with the RCMP West Coast Marine Services and the Indigenous Policing Services (IPS) members working in those communities," says Insp. Dee Stewart, the officer in charge of IPS in British Columbia.
In late March, marine unit officers — who police areas only reachable by boat or air — conducted foot patrols in several communities and wore masks and gloves to prevent transmission.
By mid-May, they decided not to enter the communities unless there was an urgent event.
But to ensure they remained connected with the community, the unit members started docking their 65-foot Catamaran at the wharf and waiting for a community official or Elder to approach.
During these visits, the officers wear masks and gloves.
"We'll discuss what's going on in the community, if everything is all right and if there's anything they need from us," says Kokesch, who's based in Nanaimo, B.C., and patrols the coast from the tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaska border. "Usually the word will spread quickly that we arrived, by word of mouth or by their radio service. And that's the whole point: To let everyone know we're still visiting the communities to make sure everyone is safe."
Although some travel restrictions have eased, Indigenous leaders are still asking community members to continue practising physical distancing, washing hands frequently and using caution when touching anything that can carry the virus.
At IPS, RCMP officers use video conferencing to connect with Chiefs and Councils, share exercise programs on social media platforms, and keep their distance when on patrol or when delivering packages, such as cleaning and hygiene supplies.
Stewart acknowledges that while the pandemic poses challenges, supporting Indigenous communities is essential.
"It is more important now than ever to maintain our presence and connection to the Indigenous communities along B.C.'s coast," she says. "And that includes contributing to the health and safety of Indigenous communities."