The NWT government’s new pandemic enforcement team conducted a high-profile checkstop in Yellowknife on Saturday, pulling over vehicles and handing out posters.
RCMP and municipal enforcement officers directed vehicles into roadside bays as public health officers, part of a new team set up to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, introduced themselves to drivers.
Chloe, ordinarily an environmental health officer, greeted drivers from behind her mask then offered them a brochure about the restrictions (with the help of a clipboard on a lengthy paddle to guarantee a two-metre distance).
“We’re trying to ensure the public are aware of what the orders are and what is required of them, so they’re able to comply. If people don’t know what’s expected of them in terms of how to comply or what to comply to, then it’s pretty difficult,” said Conrad Baetz, who leads what is officially named the Compliance and Enforcement Task Force.
His officers will enforce NWT-specific rules like mandatory self-isolation when you cross into the territory, an outright ban on indoor gatherings, and a limit of 10 people – all at least two metres apart from each other – gathering outdoors.
Territorial government staff said Saturday’s checkstop was purely educational, with no intention of taking enforcement action unless something obviously criminal were taking place.
A further checkstop in Dettah was understood to be planned for later the same day.
“The task force is a brand new group of individuals and this is an excellent opportunity for people to get to know who we are,” said Baetz.
“It’s important that everybody not so much know who we are individually but know that we’re out, that we’re about, and that we’re following up on complaints – following up on making sure people are complying with all the orders.”
Public health officers are being issued with high-visibility vests bearing the NWT government’s logo and the words “public health officer” on the back. Otherwise, said Baetz, they are told to turn up for the job with whatever uniform and tools they ordinarily have in their regular line of work.
“When I leave for work in the morning, my family wish me a good day at the Coco Popo,” joked Adrien Barrieau – who, like Baetz, is helping to run the enforcement team – in reference to a nickname for the NWT’s “Covid police.”
Barrieau’s main role is assessing complaints to the NWT’s enforcement hotline as they come in, then directing them to the relevant regional team.
“There’s no science behind this but I’d say about 80 percent of the complaints are credible and 20 percent I have to redirect,” said Barrieau, formerly an RCMP officer of 30 years’ experience.
So far, he said, drivers stopped on Saturday had been receptive.
Who are the public health officers?
There are around 30 public health officers in the new enforcement task force. They are all GNWT staff who ordinarily do enforcement work in their regular roles – for example as wildlife officers, environment health officers, or land use inspectors.
The NWT government, in an online document produced to explain the officers’ role, states they are “people who already have good relationships and trust within their communities – they are meant to be allies, and will not arbitrarily hand out tickets.”
They can be assisted by RCMP and municipal enforcement officers, too.
Conrad Baetz, right, leads the NWT’s pandemic enforcement task force. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
“Our first group of enforcement officers are from natural resources, they are enforcement officers, so they’re doing their regular job. It’s just a different act that they’re working under,” said Barrieau, normally a director at the Department of Justice, who like Baetz has been appointed a deputy chief public health officer for the duration of the pandemic.
“The learning curve wasn’t quite as steep for them as if we were trying to redeploy a policy analyst, for instance, who has no enforcement experience,” said Barrieau. “Although it’s been a lot of work and there is a learning curve, it’s not as steep as it would have been otherwise.”
Barrieau, Baetz (from the Department of Lands), and Dennis Marchiori (from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) all hold the same title and are jointly overseeing enforcement.
Barrieau said personnel in the task force may need to change as officers are drawn back to their normal jobs.
“Forest fire season is coming up so they may have to be redeployed to other priorities,” he said, giving the example of staff from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We are looking at other government agencies within the GNWT that have the enforcement-type people who could take the training.”
What exactly can public health officers do?
The NWT government says the task force exists primarily to educate people, ensuring they know the orders issued by Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer.
If necessary, public health officers can take the following extra steps:
- written warnings for people or businesses that aren’t following the rules;
- tickets for up to $1,500;
- a court summons (if convicted, the maximum fine a judge can issue is $10,000 if rules have been continually ignored); or
- “in extreme circumstances,” according to the NWT government, a public health officer “may apprehend and detain you if there is a significant and imminent risk to public health.”
Baetz has previously said public health officers would be expected to call for backup from RCMP if entering situations where they were expected to confront a number of people (for example, a large party being held indoors) or where force was required.
Are there public health officers in my community?
If you’re in a regional centre like Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik, or Fort Smith, yes. Public health officers are currently based in larger communities.
“Right now we have people based in hubs. I think as we evolve we’ll see where things go,” said Baetz on Saturday.
The NWT government said Saturday’s checkstop was “educational” in nature. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Some of the territory’s smaller communities don’t yet have their own officers. Officers would be dispatched as required, for example to investigate a complaint.
“It depends on how long we’re going to be in this and whether it’s a matter of weeks or months,” Baetz said when asked if smaller communities would eventually receive their own officers.
“We’re not really sure yet.”
Making a complaint (or being complained about)?
When you call the new 8-1-1 number or email Protect NWT, your complaint is received and evaluated by a team member like Barrieau before it’s sent to the correct region.
The NWT government says public health officers who receive the information are expected to inform the person or company accused of improper conduct and question them about what took place.
More: The NWT government’s Covid-19 enforcement Q&A
“Most often,” if a complaint turns out to be accurate, the territorial government says the response will be “educating the person so they can comply or giving a warning.”
If you do end up with a ticket, it acts like a traffic ticket. That means you can choose to pay the fine or you can dispute it in court with help from a lawyer.
Similarly, if you are issued with a court summons or arrested, your case will go through the normal legal process.