Monkey Tree Pub co-owners Steve Dinham and Jennifer Vornbrock. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A charge that Yellowknife’s Monkey Tree Pub broke the NWT’s Covid-19 rules has been dismissed because the prosecution failed to demonstrate the pub had ever been told about them.
The pub stood accused of allowing a dance floor to operate in November 2020 despite a public health order banning dance floors in establishments in the middle of the pandemic.
Thursday’s opening day of the trial at Territorial Court was spent arguing about such things as what constitutes a dance floor, whether such a dance floor was open or closed that night, and to what extent dancing was taking place.
Delivering her decision on Friday, Deputy Judge Bernadette Schmaltz told the courtroom: “I find it perfectly clear that a dance floor with at least 15 to 20 people dancing on it is not closed.”
However, Schmaltz said, territorial legal counsel Roger Shepard had not introduced any evidence to show the pub’s owners had been told about the public health order banning dance floors, which had been issued in June that year.
“Dance floors shall remain closed,” that order stated. But Schmaltz said she had been given no evidence – such as media reports or press releases from that time – to show the pub had been informed of that. Nor, said the judge, had witnesses on Thursday, including public health officers, been asked whether or not the pub was given notice of the order.
Without having that evidence, said Schmaltz, she could not find the pub guilty. The charge was dismissed.
“Oh my God,” breathed pub co-owner Jennifer Vornbrock as the ruling was delivered.
Outside court, Vornbrock told reporters: “I don’t think it was necessary for it to come to this. This was a lot of government money that was wasted.
“We firmly believe that everything we’ve done navigating this pandemic, we’ve done our best. You know, were there people dancing that night? Yes, there was. But it’s really difficult to control.”
‘I’d be telling people over and over’
The Monkey Tree was the only business in the NWT to be fined – and subsequently taken to court – for violation of a pandemic-related public health order.
Had the pub lost the case, it would have had to pay a fine of just over $5,000. The pub’s legal fees were covered through fundraising conducted by a national Fight the Fines movement.
Steve Dinham, who owns the pub with Vornbrock, said being taken to court was an unfair consequence for a local business trying to cooperate with rules that, he said, were difficult for staff to enforce.
“Especially when we first reopened, we were both there till close every night,” Dinham told reporters on Friday.
“All we did was race around, trying to get people back in their seats, trying to get people to not line up, try to get people to follow the rules that we had in place. We were following what we were given, the instructions that we had.”
Vornbrock said the pub tried to create a safe space with few resources and little available training.
“Although this was a fabulous outcome for us, I mean, we’re lucky that it was,” she said. “It didn’t need to go through all of this, we could have just had some conversations and redirection.”
Though the judge made clear that she believed a dance floor had been operating, contrary to the rules at the time, Dinham said he did not think the verdict amounted to being cleared on a technicality.
“I do think the majority of the public didn’t know,” he said of the rules, “because when I approached them on a day-to-day basis, I’d just be telling people – over and over again – what was expected. And we did have signage, we did have things up.”
Vornbrock said: “We’ve done a lot for this community, we always have, even through the pandemic.
“We didn’t stand down because of this or let it negatively impact us, we just kept going. And you know, for that, we were able to maintain paycheques for 45 employees, which wasn’t easy.
“We hope that people understand that we do create a safe space, it’s safe to come to the Monkey Tree. We do our best to make it a fun place for people to come socialize.”