While Premier Caroline Cochrane has urged the NWT’s local leaders not to use checkpoints, the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk and Deninu Kue First Nation each say theirs will remain in place.
The two are among the first to erect checkpoints in response to Covid-19. Speaking to Cabin Radio on Tuesday, Cochrane had asked for such communities to “sit down and talk” with the government so “all of us feel safe.”
Deninu Kue Chief Louis Balsillie said the community of Fort Resolution – where the first case of Covid-19 in a small NWT community was identified last week – would be keeping its checkpoint intact.
“This virus has put a lot of burden on people,” Balsillie said on Wednesday. “Everybody is hurting in a lot of different ways and it’s difficult to deal with things. My people need comfort.”
Fort Resolution has three different governments, Balsillie said, referring to the municipality, the First Nation, and the territory. He argues that makes it “difficult to put things in order” because the First Nation has to work with how the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) “is operating in the community.”
He thinks people in the community are happy something is in place. To him, the checkpoint is not about stopping people coming or going but making residents feel safe.
“We’re not saying whoever [comes] into the community, we are stopping them,” said Balsillie. (Last week, he had said: “People who do not live in Fort Resolution will have to turn around.”)
“I have people phoning me telling me they’re coming into the community to do the housing or whatever projects need to be done, it still carries on,” Balsillie said.
“I’m only looking out for the safety of my membership in the community and I have that right as the chief. Regardless of if [Maca] has policies. My policy is, I look after people.”
Information passed out at Tuk checkpoint
On Tuesday afternoon, Tuktoyaktuk put up a checkstop on the highway to and from Inuvik.
Travellers leaving the hamlet are asked where they’re headed, Mayor Erwin Elias said, and those coming into Tuktoyaktuk are asked the reason for their visit. If they don’t have a good reason, they’re asked to stay away during the pandemic.
“This is not to make a statement,” Elias said of the checkstop. “The only reason we’re doing this is to try to find a way to control, I guess you can say, some of the traffic that’s non-essential.”
Elias said the hamlet has been following recommendations from the territory’s chief public health officer. He said everyone stopped so far had been “very cooperative” and the checkstop is helping to educate the community.
“It’s not a roadblock, it’s a checkstop,” Elias said. “I think every community should do it for information.”
‘We want to be proactive’
Speaking to Covid Corner on Tuesday, Cochrane disputed that the territorial government is arguing with communities about checkpoints. She said she wants all levels of government to sit down and talk, and noted checkpoints are not currently blocking roads. There have been no reports of violence.
“We haven’t told them to dismantle so I wouldn’t say there’s an argument,” she said. “What I am saying is that we are going to have the conversation to see if that is the best method and, if that is the best method, how can we … make it so that it is legal and we have the precautions in place.”
Elias said the hamlet asked the territorial government several weeks ago for help reducing traffic in and out of the community and making sure people take precautions seriously. Elias said the community never got a response. He noted the territory’s second confirmed case of Covid-19 was recently identified in Inuvik.
“If this virus ever hits our community, with the amount of people that go back and forth around town, with the traffic coming into the community, how can we ever enforce that? How can we control it or limit it?” he asked.
“We’re not going to sit here and do nothing. We want to be proactive.”
Elias said people are allowed to leave and return to the community to get necessary supplies like lumber or pick up vehicles and snowmobiles. He could not say how many people have been stopped at the checkpoint so far.
According to the Town of Inuvik, since March 22, 65 travellers have been registered to the isolation centre at the Mackenzie Hotel and 255 travellers have been registered at the Inuvik Airport.
Balsillie hopes to keep Fort Resolution’s checkpoint running with support from nearby Akaitcho groups.
“I’ve been looking for support from my Akaitcho partners from around the lakeshore to see if they would give me the support, because I’m not going to [take] it down,” he said. “I’m going to be looking for funding to continue the [checkstop] because it’s costing money for the First Nation.”
Balsillie said he will wait to hear from the premier about the checkpoint.
“One of the things as a premier [is], you have to work with the First Nation governments,” he said. “I have [rights] and the premier should understand that we’re First Nation people, you’re supposed to be working with us as a community and a First Nation.
“Right now we sit at the table negotiating for our lands and she’s part of that,” he added. “And now you’re going to turn your hat around because you’re premier and say all check stops should stop.”
The Mikisew Cree First Nation, in northern Alberta, has been operating this checkpoint outside Fort Chipewyan since mid-March.
The Kátł’odeeche First Nation and Nahanni Butte’s Nahæâ Dehé Dene Band have also put up check stops.
Balsillie wondered how that will play into proposed talks.
“What’s she going to tell Kátł’odeeche? That’s a reserve. What’s she going to tell them?” he asked.
“They had a community meeting the other day. I refused to be at that meeting because [there was] nobody with the authority to tell us anything,” he continued. “That’s all they are telling the leaders in the communities: ‘I’ll get back to you, I’ll get back to you.’ When? When our people are dead? Only then you’ll get back to us?”
Northwest Territory Métis Nation president Garry Bailey and the Nahæâ Dehé Dene Band had not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Assume Covid-19 is in your community, says premier
The NWT government has said local leaders will not be told if there are confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their communities. Cochrane said even she was not informed that the NWT’s fifth positive test had been identified in Fort Resolution last week.
“Every single person in the Northwest Territories needs to … make the assumption that Covid-19 is in your community,” she said. “As long as people think that it is not there, then people will not take the seriousness that it has to take.”
Cochrane noted the situation with Covid-19 is changing quickly and is new to everyone. She said the territorial government has been doing its best to respond, and added mistrust of government is a longstanding issue.
Elias hopes communication will improve since Premier Cochrane announced she was taking over the Municipal and Community Affairs portfolio on Tuesday.
“Hopefully we can iron out things going out forward,” he said.
“Everybody needs to work together on this. It’s way bigger than all of us.”