In a nationally televised interview on Monday, the Premier of the Northwest Territories said anyone can enter the territory as long as they self-isolate for two weeks on arrival.
A day later, the NWT’s health minister directly contradicted that statement. Diane Thom said in the legislature: “Residents will be kept as safe as they are now. It’s not a free-for-all at the border.”
The NWT has since mid-March stated its borders are closed to anyone except residents and people whose reasons for travel meet a small list of exemptions, like essential workers and supply truck drivers.
However, Premier Caroline Cochrane told the CBC on Monday that anyone is in fact welcome to enter the territory as long as they self-isolate for two weeks.
“People who come from other jurisdictions are also welcome but they have to have a self-isolation plan,” Cochrane told CBC host Rosemary Barton.
Asked by Barton if tourism was off the table, Cochrane replied: “Tourism is on the table. It’s important to realize the North has a lot to offer.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful country up here. We are hoping that people will take the advantage and see our beautiful territory.”
In a follow-up email on Tuesday after Cabin Radio sought clarity, Cochrane stated clearly that people who are not taking part in essential travel can enter the NWT.
“While we have said the NWT’s borders are closed, it would be more accurate to say that travel within the territory has been restricted,” Cochrane stated through a spokesperson.
“While the border isn’t closed to Canadian residents, we still require people who are not on essential travel to self-isolate for 14 days in one of four regional centres.
“We recognize that we need to be clearer on the authority and operation of our travel restrictions. We are making it clearer for those travelling in the NWT and for our officials who are protecting public health by monitoring travel into the territories.”
However, in the legislature, Thom said the exact opposite.
“Leisure travel in the NWT is still prohibited,” Thom said in response to questions from Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson.
Thom suggested a new public health order was on the way that would allow people moving north for work, or for post-secondary study, easier entry to the territory.
She said exceptions on compassionate grounds or for family reunification would also be available but, otherwise, “you will not be allowed to travel further in the NWT.”
Public health order contradicts premier
Those conflicting statements left the NWT’s position on non-residents anything but clear.
If non-residents can now enter at will as long as they self-isolate, that shift in position has far-reaching consequences.
NWT residents have, for example, told family members and friends from other parts of Canada not to travel north this summer – in some cases abandoning plans made months earlier – on the understanding that only residents and exempted workers would be allowed into the territory.
The territory’s April 27 public health order on travel restrictions, which is still active, appears to directly contradict Cochrane’s statements from Monday and Tuesday. There is so far no sign of the new public health order Thom alluded to on Tuesday.
The existing public health order states “all persons are prohibited from travel within the Northwest Territories that originated from across any inter-jurisdictional border” with the exception of NWT residents, seven types of exempted worker, and exemptions related to medical travel, harvesting, and travel through the territory to another destination.
Similar travel restrictions elsewhere in Canada have faced constitutional challenges.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in particular, has questioned the validity of the territory’s public health order.
On May 25, the association wrote to the NWT government. In its letter, the association said the public health order served to “largely prohibit Canadians not resident in the NWT from entering the territory, with limited exceptions.”
“The mobility rights of Canadians are sacrosanct,” the association stated in the letter, addressed to justice minister Caroline Wawzonek. The association said any restrictions on those rights should be reasonable and demonstrably justified, adding: “In our view, the territory’s current restriction on travel is neither.”
The NWT’s chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola, has made no public comment since Cochrane’s Monday remarks.
‘We were told no’
Lynn Canney, who runs Fort Simpson’s Mackenzie Rest Inn, said she was “very confused” by the apparent shift in the NWT’s position, as described by the premier.
“I thought I might be losing my mind,” Canney said, describing her reaction on hearing Monday’s interview. “Where has all that come from?”
Canney said she and her husband have disabilities and care for a grandchild together. Recently, she said, they had a medical concern that caused Canney to call the Protect NWT 8-1-1 hotline – which enforces NWT travel restrictions.
“We called 8-1-1 to ask if they could make an exception for us, so one of our daughters or another family member could come up, even if they had to quarantine in Yellowknife for two weeks,” Canney said.
“We were told no. No non-residents, non-residents are not happening.”
Her father, in his eighties, is also a concern for Canney. She had previously understood he could not come to the Northwest Territories to be with her during the pandemic.
“I’m happy it’s a possibility that he could come, isolate for two weeks, and then be at home with us,” she said. “But I’m very confused.”
MLA complains of confusion
Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green said on Tuesday the conflicting statements from Cochrane and Thom amounted to a “really confusing mish-mash.”
Responding to Green in the legislature, Cochrane suggested the chief public health officer had been “caught off-guard” in the media, despite the fact DrKandola has yet to make a statement on the issue.
“We have to be very careful, as politicians, that we are not imposing on the chief public health officer. She is not a politician. She is trying her best,” Cochrane said.
After Green noted her concern lay with the premier, not Kandola, Cochrane continued: “I apologize if it was my comments on CBC. Right up until this morning, we were still talking about this issue. I would love if the media gave me all the questions in advance and I could be preparing all the answers.”
She did not, however, clarify what the rules actually now are regarding travel into the NWT.