“I see, every day, a massive and gaping hole in the virus-tight lifeboat we’re desperately trying to build for ourselves.”
Those words were written by a Yellowknife security guard in a letter to the Department of Health and Social Services this week. People tasked with keeping the city’s stores and office buildings safe say they are exposed to too much risk of Covid-19 and urgently need more protection.
Three security guards, speaking with Cabin Radio on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, described a small number of the city’s population not following pandemic advice – and instead, sometimes using fear of the virus against staff.
They said they had been forced to “adapt significantly” to do their jobs as the pandemic grew. All three expressed concerns about a small number of people they knew well, and understood to be homeless, creating situations that placed both their and others’ health at risk.
One of the guards, continuing a letter outlining their concerns, said an individual they knew had “started trying to grab members of the security team here in order to cough on them, or rub his face on and spit on their clothing.”
They describes instances of shoppers being pursued through parking lots as people used “the public’s fear and caution as a weapon against them.”
“Not only are they not complying with the new laws and policies … in some cases they are actively hampering them,” the guard wrote.
“And where is it that I see this happening? Right out in front of a grocery store. The one resource in the city that everyone must use at some point.”
A second individual told Cabin Radio: “I’m concerned, as a citizen, from the things that I’ve gone through. I’ve been spat at in the face.”
While one member of security staff said they had been working despite a shortage of protective equipment – masks had only recently arrived – others said they felt appropriately equipped.
One worker took their concerns to a live CBC North call-in show last week, asking Dr Kami Kandola – the NWT’s chief public health officer – how they could be helped.
Dr Kandola told the caller to send a complaint that would allow her office to investigate. She said her team was looking at how to get more protective equipment to downtown workers, saying “more information on that will be forthcoming.”
Kandola added employers had a duty to “ensure you can do your job safely.”
“If you can’t protect yourself safely, you need to discuss with your employer a redesignation of function,” she said.
Cabin Radio contacted several security companies operating in the NWT on Monday and Tuesday. None had responded by Thursday.
Alone in a pandemic
Yellowknife’s downtown is a complex and sensitive environment. How to keep everyone safe, when not everyone has access to the same help or even a home, has been a concern for decades.
Now, people who were already vulnerable find themselves on the streets during a global health crisis brought on by an unusually contagious virus. They are being told to stay at home, without a home to stay at. Physical distancing measures ask that people who routinely describe feeling alone become even more isolated.
Organizations like the NWT Disabilities Council, Yellowknife Women’s Society, and Salvation Army have been tasked with trying to increase supports, even as their ability to operate is hindered by restrictions and risk associated with Covid-19.
The Yellowknife Women’s Society is working as fast as it can to turn the Arnica Inn, on Franklin Avenue, into emergency, temporary housing for people who need it during the pandemic.
The city’s downtown day centre last week became a month-long isolation shelter for 30 people who don’t have anywhere else to go. The NWT Disabilities Council, which runs the shelter, said the occupants had agreed not to leave the facility for 30 days in order to isolate themselves from Covid-19.
However, the facility’s decision to no longer offer a day shelter in turn appeared to lead to a lack of daytime supports for others.
Lydia Bardak, long an advocate for people in downtown Yellowknife who have nowhere safe to go, questioned how the NWT government’s advice about Covid-19 was being distributed to people who have no internet access and can no longer pick up a printed newspaper. It is possible, Bardak suggested, that some people have no idea of the measures being asked of NWT residents during the pandemic.
Security staff who spoke with Cabin Radio insisted they understood the issues faced by people they regularly saw downtown. One said they knew there were “no easy solutions.” Another said they had chosen to contact reporters only after deciding they felt there was a “serious threat” to residents downtown.
Requests for help ‘ignored’
Primarily, each voiced a sense of powerlessness when shoppers or office workers – or the guards themselves – felt threatened by someone getting too close or attempting any form of assault.
They are looking to the RCMP for more help.
“My employer’s answer is to call the police. Fair enough. Well, I’ve made five calls to police, in a professional capacity, in the last six days,” the first security guard’s letter continued.
“My concerns are ‘passed on.’ My requests for help are either ignored or are responded to too late. The police seem to display extreme reluctance.”
The author of the letter said they had asked police how charges of trespass and assault could be laid against a man barred from a downtown property, who had returned and tried to rub his nose on a security guard.
“I was told that things were ‘kind-of up in the air right now’ and that someone would call me back shortly and tell me how to proceed,” the guard wrote.
Contacted by Cabin Radio, RCMP in the NWT acknowledged the security staff had “important questions” about how police provide services downtown. Despite the workers’ concerns about a lack of response, police urged them to keep calling emergency numbers if they need help.
In a written statement, RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon said spitting on someone constitutes assault regardless of whether or not a pandemic is taking place, while threatening to assault someone is a criminal act in its own right.
“It is particularly concerning that some of our citizens may feel at risk due to inappropriate behaviour. As described above, assault and uttering threats are a criminal act and can be investigated as such,” York-Condon wrote.
“We want to be clear, this would be unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour, and RCMP will respond to calls for service that clearly articulate that this is an assault, or threats have occurred/happened, or are currently ongoing.”
NWT government’s response
The office of the chief public health officer said the concerns described by the security guards were “unacceptable and no one should need to put up with it.”
In a written statement, the office said: “We empathize with these hard-working security guards.”
The chief public health officer’s staff sought to reassure security staff by outlining ways in which the health of people who are homeless in Yellowknife was being assessed.
“There are things being done to keep those experiencing homeless and members of the public safe,” the office wrote to Cabin Radio.
“All shelters are screening folks as they arrive. Our health officials have armed those running the shelters with the knowledge and tools they need to get it done.
“If a person accessing a shelter is found to have symptoms upon screening, they are supported to be assessed at the Covid-19 clinic or hospital. If the decision is made to do a swab, we are providing a safe space for them to be isolated in order to preserve safety of the community and general public.
“We have reached out to our colleagues at partner NGOs who work with those experiencing homelessness to provide good information, including a number of handouts, videos, audio in several languages, and a print-ready self-assessment tool, to help build awareness amongst this tough-to-reach audience.
“We are working closely across [the territory’s pandemic response team] to get these types of materials out there as much as possible, and build a culture of compliance in all sectors of society. As this pandemic unfolds, we will be looking at issues like this to inform additional measures.”
Saying they hadn’t heard from police in days, the author of the letter warned residents that security staff remained unconvinced of the support they receive while doing their jobs.
“We have a job that we are paid for, and I’m grateful for that. But if you see us out there, don’t expect any help from us in this area,” they wrote.
“It seems we are nothing more than showpieces for an expensive system that certainly does not work very well, or take its role at all seriously.”