Since the establishment of public health orders meant to slow the spread of Covid-19, the NWT government has encouraged residents to report anyone breaking those rules.
But what happens after you make a complaint?
In April 2020, the territory launched its 8-1-1 hotline. Callers can receive information about the NWT’s Covid-19 policies and report possible violations.
The territory created its pandemic enforcement team in the same month, to ensure compliance with rules like gathering limits and self-isolation protocols. Enforcement officials have since given warnings and, in some cases, fines to those not following public health orders.
Each complaint to Protect NWT is documented and reviewed by an environmental health officer.
Through an access to information request, Cabin Radio obtained reports of calls and emails made to Protect NWT and 8-1-1 in its opening month of operation. (Names and sensitive information were redacted by the territorial government in line with privacy legislation.)
The reports provide a snapshot of residents’ concerns in the first months of the pandemic – and show how those complaints were prioritized by responders.
Of the 153 phone calls and emails documented between April 15 and 21, three in every four involved concern about mass gatherings – from dinners and parties to bingo games.
By April 11, all indoor gatherings in the territory had been banned and residents were told to have no visitors. Outdoor gatherings were restricted to 10 people as long as everyone could maintain physical distancing.
The second most frequent topic was concern that people were not following isolation orders. Almost anyone entering the territory had to isolate for two weeks in Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, or Inuvik – a rule that still exists at the time of writing.
On April 15, for example, a report from an isolation centre in Hay River indicates a resident had received several warnings for leaving the facility to hang out with friends – which was a violation.
The complainant claimed the resident was eventually evicted from the centre after they became verbally abusive with the isolation centre coordinator, who questioned why they weren’t following the rules.
The complainant’s email was sent to the deputy chief public health officer for further action. How Protect NWT ultimately handled a person evicted from an isolation centre is not clear. (While the logs acquired by Cabin Radio document initial complaints and the first steps taken to handle them, the full outcomes of cases are rarely recorded.)
In another case in Yellowknife on April 18, the North Slave isolation division’s deputy reported a woman had left the isolation centre overnight, then tried to go to the store to buy cigarettes.
The written record of the case shows the deputy trying to balance the need to enforce orders with an element of diplomacy.
“She was trying to go to the store for cigarettes. I advised that the guidelines for isolating include no going to the stores, no visitors, no visiting … the reason that the government is paying for all this and the measures taken is to protect not only her, but the community, and everywhere she goes she is putting people at risk,” an email from the deputy reads.
The woman hadn’t provided a self-isolation plan but was being allowed to stay at the isolation centre anyway, in the hope she would deliver a plan as soon as possible.
When the woman complained that she couldn’t get cigarettes, the deputy even offered to get them for her.
“She has no one that can bring her smokes, so I told her to email transfer me the money and I gave her my personal email and I will go get them,” the email states.
A third report, from the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC), documented concern that a receptionist at a Yellowknife clinic had returned to the territory after travel and wasn’t isolating because they were deemed an essential worker.
The complaint – from the fall of 2020, but included among April documents provided to Cabin Radio – voices concern that the clinic receptionist was interacting with the public, particularly people who may be at risk for Covid-19.
Documents indicate WSCC planned to follow up with the clinic to confirm an exposure control plan was in place that had been “amended to accommodate a worker in isolation.”
Early worry about the rules
Some complaints show confusion about pandemic rules and a need for more widespread information in NWT communities.
Following complaints of mass gatherings in Sachs Harbour, for example, Protect NWT was asked how residents could be educated about the rules.
“We have families that are still having large gatherings … upon the return of elderly parents who had been out in Edmonton for a month. People seem to think it doesn’t apply here in Sachs Harbour, nor does it apply on the land,” an email to Protect NWT stated.
With no radio or TV station in the community, meetings with local leaders were considered – but that would have meant holding a gathering. While posters were available, there was only one store in the community to display them in.
“Any suggestions?” the emailer asks Protect NWT.
Environmental health officers promised to send materials to the community and follow up with Sachs Harbour’s mayor and senior administrative officer.
‘Snuck in with a truck driver’
Protect NWT uses a risk-based approach to evaluating complaints. If a local business isn’t following social distancing rules, it’s considered a lower risk than someone breaking isolation to buy groceries or visit friends.
Of the complaints documented in April, 10 were considered to be moderate risk. The rest were labelled as low risk (66) or non-applicable (77).
Only three were considered to require an urgent response.
On April 18, a resident from the Dehcho was reported to be planning their return from British Columbia but refusing to isolate in Hay River or Yellowknife as they considered it “too dangerous.”
The person had not provided a valid phone number, making it hard for officials to contact them. The file was marked for urgent action.
The resident subsequently called to request an exemption allowing them to isolate in the Dehcho. Officials instructed them to contact an isolation centre coordinator and “arrange isolation in a designated community.” (Note that this wasn’t the case of a man publicly falling out with the chief public health officer over isolation in the Dehcho, which had occurred the previous month.)
In another case, on April 20, a caller indicated a woman had returned to a North Slave community from Alberta. She had told a relative she “snuck in with a truck driver and the government doesn’t know she is here,” an email stated.
An environmental health official labelled this a “serious concern,” flagged it as urgent, and passed it to their boss and the deputy chief public health officer.
A day later, RCMP in Fort Smith phoned Protect NWT to say a man who “appears to be from High Level” had been arrested, charged with weapons and drug-related offences, and was about to be released.
RCMP were “wondering if enforcement wants to do anything before he is released,” the log of the call notes.
The man had tried to tell police he arrived in the territory months ago, but he had been the subject of a police complaint in Alberta just a week earlier. He had no self-isolation plan filed in the NWT.
Protect NWT marked the file as urgent and passed it to the deputy chief public health officer for review.
Of the calls and emails received in April, 117 were labelled as complete, 37 were deemed to be a false complaint or lacking information, and three were left open.
“All complaints are taken very seriously and thoroughly reviewed. Investigations occur when there is sufficient information or evidence to do so,” said Dennis Marchiori, the territory’s director of compliance and enforcement, in a statement.
Marchiori said some complaints were resolved in just a few days, while more detailed investigations could take up to eight weeks.
By April 29, Protect NWT had received a total of 532 emails and calls. During that time, pandemic enforcement officials issued 93 verbal and written warnings.
The first ticket, a fine of $1,725, was issued on June 10 to an Alberta resident said by RCMP to have sped past the Highway 1 checkstop.
As of January 6 this year, the NWT’s compliance and enforcement team had investigated 3,784 complaints, issued 632 verbal and written warnings, and handed out 38 summary offence tickets.
To date, Yellowknife’s Monkey Tree Pub is the only business to be charged by the territory’s enforcement team, facing a fine of $5,175. The pub has said it plans to contest the fine.