NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane says she understands residents’ frustration at the decision of three senior officials to travel outside the territory over the holiday period, despite her government’s request that residents not do so.
Cochrane said she would speak with all of the territory’s deputy ministers to ensure they consider public perception when making future travel plans.
“It’s important that we lead by example and make the same sacrifices we are asking of you during the pandemic,” she said.
Since the start of the pandemic, NWT health officials have strongly discouraged non-essential travel outside the territory during the pandemic, including a plea not to travel or have out-of-territory visitors over the winter holiday as cases of Covid-19 surged elsewhere in Canada.
On Tuesday morning, the CBC reported two NWT deputy ministers had nevertheless travelled south during the holidays. According to the broadcaster, deputy health minister Bruce Cooper travelled to Newfoundland while Covid-19 secretariat boss Russell Neudorf went to British Columbia.
Both were said to be spending time with family, a reason the territory had previously suggested was insufficient to warrant travel at such a key moment in the fight against the virus, with vaccines on the way but new variants emerging.
Cochrane confirmed a third senior official had also travelled outside the territory during the same period. That official has not been named.
Asked by Cabin Radio if she was aware of the officials’ plans before they travelled and had discussed those plans in advance, Cochrane said she “was not at liberty” to discuss personal leave.
She said that while the territory discourages non-essential travel, it cannot legally stop people crossing borders. Citing the territory’s rule that almost all residents returning to the territory isolate for two weeks, she said all three officials were following that instruction.
Damien Healy, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services told Cabin Radio the department would not comment on the personal travel of public servants.
“It is recognized that there may be extenuating personal circumstances that lead residents, including public servants, to travel outside of the NWT,” Healey wrote in a statement.
“We understand and respect their decisions to do so, and the GNWT is confident that employees who travel will follow the public health orders when they return in order to continue to protect the communities they serve.”
No ministers travelled over Christmas
A spokesperson for Cochrane’s cabinet said none of the territory’s ministers had travelled outside the NWT since December 23. The territory’s database of ministerial travel suggests no minister has travelled outside the territory in relation to their role since the start of the pandemic.
Cochrane told reporters that since November, only one minister had left the territory for a personal matter.
Regular MLAs Frieda Martselos, Kevin O’Reilly, Steve Norn, Jackson Lafferty, Caitlin Cleveland, Rylund Johnson, Ron Bonnetrouge, Lesa Semmler, and Rocky Simpson all told Cabin Radio they did not travel outside of territory over the holiday season.
Speaker of the House Frederick Blake said he had not travelled outside the territory during the pandemic save for a hunting trip before Christmas to Rock River, located just outside the NWT border.
Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, did travel to British Columbia over the holiday period. She was taking care of her late mother’s belongings.
While the territory has covered the costs of any resident staying in one of the territory’s isolation centres, anyone returning from non-essential travel must now pay for it themselves, with few exceptions.
‘No one should be vacationing abroad’
Politicians in southern Canada are facing scrutiny for choosing to travel outside their provinces, and in some cases outside the country, during the pandemic. Premier Cochrane noted NWT officials had not spent their vacations abroad.
“Nobody took a holiday in another country,” she said.
In an address from Ottawa’s Rideau Cottage earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the many Canadians who did not travel or have gatherings during the holidays, along with the importance of following public health rules.
“We’ve been very clear, no one should be vacationing abroad right now,” he said.
“So many people gave up so much more than just a vacation over the holidays. There’s a reason so many Canadians made those tough but responsible decisions. There’s a reason so many Canadians did their part. It was for the people around them.”
Starting on Thursday, travellers returning to Canada must have a negative Covid-19 test prior to boarding their flight before they will be allowed back into the country. International travellers are required to isolate for two weeks.
“As new strains of Covid-19 emerge, as cases skyrocket in countless countries, this is the time to double down on keeping you and your family safe,” Trudeau said.
According to CTV’s Covid-19 tracker, there are currently 78,410 active cases across Canada. As of Tuesday, 16,187 people had died after contracting the disease.