Some Fort Smith leaders criticized a pass system introduced at the nearby border with Alberta, questioning why they are being tracked in a way no other NWT residents are.
Fort Smith lies just north of a checkpoint at the NWT-Alberta border. Fort Fitzgerald, the Smith’s Landing First Nation, and Wood Buffalo National Park lie on the other side – as do cabins, a golf course, a greenhouse, hiking trails, and beaches.
People living on the Alberta side rely on Fort Smith for goods and services.
Residents of the area were first given special permission to cross back and forth in late March, after the winter road south to Fort Chipewyan melted.
A staffed checkpoint resumed in early June in response to increased summer traffic.
On Monday, the territorial government said the latest iteration of the checkpoint “includes passes for residents from the NWT and Alberta representing various situations and activities commonly shared between Fort Smith, Fort Fitzgerald, Smith’s Landing, and other nearby communities.
At the checkpoint, staff “will record information like identification, licence plate number, contact information, and expected return date,” a news release from the territory read.
Deputy Mayor Kevin Smith appeared unimpressed by the pass system at a council meeting on Tuesday evening.
“The press release was framed that they were doing us a favour by enabling a pass system which allowed us to move back and forth across the border,” Smith said.
“I think it needs to be noted that Fort Smith residents are being subjected to a form of documentation tracking that no other territorial residents are being subjected to. As you cross the border, the number of people in your vehicle is being noted, your destination is being noted, the time of your departure, the time of your arrival.
“The government is tracking our movements on an artificial boundary which didn’t exist 100 years ago and I think that there’s some cause for concern there.”
Smith said he understands the concern that people from Alberta south of Fort Fitzgerald could access the NWT via the border, potentially circumventing restrictions designed to keep Covid-19 out of the territory.
He added he recognizes local staff at the border are doing the best they can.
However, Smith said he was troubled that Fort Smith residents wanting to access facilities and recreational opportunities just south of the border were being subjected to a level of scrutiny no other NWT residents face.
“I’m not sure that that would actually stand up to constitutional challenge,” he said.
The Town of Fort Smith’s senior administrative officer, Keith Morrison, expanded on Smith’s concerns in the same meeting.
“The recording of movements feels sinister,” he said.
“I think we all understand that there are no concerns about our family members and our friends that live in Fort Fitzgerald – the concern is about people coming up from further south.
“The problem is the GNWT does not have the ability, due to jurisdictional issues, to control the travel from Fort Chipewyan to Fort Fitzgerald … it seems strange to me the GNWT has not been able, or has not attempted, to try to come to an agreement [with the Government of Alberta].”
Morrison questioned why the territorial government, if it can’t work with Alberta, hasn’t tried to work with Wood Buffalo National Park – through which all roads in that area run.
“I think those controls could be moved south of [Fort Fitzgerald] so as to relax the border here – but again, it becomes such a jurisdictional argument that it appears the territorial government is unwilling to undertake it,” he said.
“As a result, we see this bizarre situation where friends and family have to sign in and out as they move back and forth across the arbitrary border, instead of acknowledging more natural, historic borders.”
The NWT government said it offers a variety of passes to NWT residents:
- Standard access: allows for day-use travel in and out of the NWT as far as Fort Fitzgerald and the Salt River day use area, and provides an authorized exemption to self-isolation requirements.
- Limited access: allows for overnight travel in Alberta where the final destination is north of Hay Camp on Highway 61, or north of Peace Point on Highways 58 and 60 (includes Pine Lake).
- Restricted access: allows for overnight travel originating in the NWT to and from Alberta where the final destination is farther than Hay Camp on Highway 61, or farther than Peace Point on Highways 58 and 60.
Passes for Alberta residents include:
- Standard access: Day-use access to the Town of Fort Smith and vicinity for non-NWT residents travelling within the NWT, where their travel originates in Alberta north of and including the vicinity of Fort Fitzgerald and the Salt River day use area.
- Limited access: Day-use access to the Town of Fort Smith and vicinity for non-NWT residents travelling within the NWT, where their travel originates in Alberta north of Hay Camp on Highway 61, or north of Peace Point on Highways 58 and 60 (includes Pine Lake).
- Restricted access: Day-use access to the Town of Fort Smith and vicinity for non-NWT residents travelling within the NWT, where their travel originates in Alberta farther than Hay Camp on Highway 61, or farther than Peace Point on Highways 58 and 60), but not as far as Fort Chipewyan.
People who need a pass are encouraged to email their local Department of Lands office – in the South Slave, the email is firstname.lastname@example.org – or apply at the checkpoint.
However, the territorial government has warned processing of applications can take five to seven days.