The NWT’s health minister on Wednesday said the territory stopped turning away non-residents at its border almost two weeks ago.
Diane Thom said the change happened on May 27 under questioning about this week’s significant and haphazardly communicated shift in pandemic travel restrictions at the NWT border.
After this report was first published, Thom’s office said the minister had misspoken and the change in fact took place on May 29, two days later.
MLAs have asked why the NWT made such a significant alteration to its policy at the border without communicating it.
The NWT, which previously said its borders were closed to all non-residents with limited exemptions, now says non-residents can come in – if they seek an exemption and stay in an isolation centre (at their cost) until it is granted.
If an exemption is not granted, a spokesperson said, they must complete the 14-day isolation period then either leave the NWT voluntarily or be “subject to enforcement actions” by public health officers.
The NWT government says the change was made because its previous stance, which barred all non-residents without an exemption, appeared to conflict with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, confusion remains over who can enter the NWT and in which circumstances.
Premier Caroline Cochrane said this week that tourists were welcome, while health minister Thom said “leisure travel remains prohibited.”
An NWT government spokesperson on Wednesday was not able to immediately explain how tourists arriving at the border would be handled, other than they would be sent to an isolation centre and told to seek an exemption.
Whether an exemption for tourists now exists – which would in effect allow anyone to enter the NWT – is not clear.
‘This creates more confusion’
Thom, responding in the legislature to questions from Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, appeared to suggest the NWT’s border may never have been technically closed at all.
“We came to realize communications and actions at the border were not in keeping with the Charter and the public health order,” Thom said.
“People took our actions to mean that the borders were closed.”
However, in a separate and apparently conflicting answer, Thom said border enforcement officers had “stood down on refusing entry into the NWT for non-residents” on May 27 – implying the border was, in practical terms, closed prior to that date.
Green, replying to Thom, said: “Unfortunately, the effect of this is to create more confusion. What I understand is the borders never were closed even though we were told they were closed.
“There are real things at stake in telling people that the border is closed. People who were looking forward to family visits and in some cases family reunification have been waiting for a relaxation of restrictions.
“Whatever change was made wasn’t communicated to us for more than two weeks.”
Thom responded: “I recognize that there is room for improvement in communication.”
More change on Friday?
This week’s confusion and debate over what exactly is happening began following Premier Cochrane’s Monday interview with CBC in which she said tourism was “on the table” and tourists could explore the territory once they self-isolated.
Cochrane’s interpretation of the rules as voiced in that interview still does not fully conform to the explanations the NWT government has since given.
On Wednesday, the NWT government said Cochrane had been speaking with reference to potential tourists from Nunavut – with which the NWT hopes to create a “travel bubble” where self-isolation would not be needed.
However, all of this discussion may soon be rendered redundant.
The NWT government says it will unveil at least one new public health order on Friday, the day on which the territory is set to move to phase two of its pandemic recovery plan.
Cabin Radio understands the forthcoming public health order will make further changes to travel restrictions, which have yet to be announced.