The NWT’s food and beverage industry is afraid of speaking out about the actions of health inspectors, the territory’s chamber of commerce said in a letter to Premier Caroline Cochrane.
The remarks came as NWT Chamber of Commerce president Jenni Bruce defended Yellowknife’s Monkey Tree Pub in its ongoing dispute with the premier and NWT government over a pandemic-related fine.
The Monkey Tree faces a $4,500 fine and $675 surcharge for an alleged mid-November violation of a Covid-19 public health order limiting the capacity of indoor areas.
The pub’s owners have told Cabin Radio they intend to challenge the fine.
Co-owner Jennifer Vornbrock subsequently wrote to the premier stating she had barred the health inspector who issued the fine from the premises.
The inspector had “on many occasions behaved aggressively and inappropriately towards both the owners and the staff,” Vornbrock wrote in a December 30 letter.
“As a woman in business, I have a right to work in a safe space,” she wrote, alleging the inspector had targeted her establishment and left her feeling unsafe.
The Monkey Tree is the only business charged to date by the territory’s enforcement team.
Writing to support the Monkey Tree, chamber president Bruce said she was concerned that “the GNWT does not see the issue of a male in an authority position being aggressive and unprofessional to a sector that is 85-percent female.”
Bruce wrote: “Every individual has the right to a safe work environment free from harassment without the fear of retribution. This fundamental human right cannot be brushed aside.
“As you know, the food and beverage sector has been struggling to barely survive in this economic climate. It seems unacceptable that businesses now have to worry that infractions can be dug up seemingly out of nowhere, despite the amount of time that has lapsed, and/or whether or not the inspector actually witnessed it.
“Regrettably there is a very distinct sense of potential retaliation toward the business owners and staff of the food and beverage industry should they run afoul or speak out against the inspectors. They are the only sector in the business community that is being inspected and as such their livelihood, and the livelihood of their staff, depends on how the inspectors decide to apply policies of the GNWT.”
Bruce called on the premier to investigate the pub’s complaints about the inspector and produce a public report. She said the GNWT’s treatment of the Monkey Tree was “extremely troubling for the business community.”
‘Information and guidance’
In response, Premier Cochrane told Cabin Radio businesses must comply with public health orders, and failing to comply “jeopardizes the relative openness of our economy as an outbreak could result in the need for stricter measures.”
The premier’s written statement did not directly address the Monkey Tree’s case as it is set to be heard in court.
Nor did the premier address the chamber’s allegation of “infractions dug up out of nowhere” or the suggestion that businesses fear retaliation from inspectors.
The premier wrote: “Our public health officers use a progressive enforcement model emphasizing education ahead of punitive measures. This means unless there was imminent danger or a blatant violation, they would provide information and guidance to help bring an individual or business into compliance.
“Except in extraordinary instances, we would not issue a charge to a business without first educating.
“We have worked closely with the business community to put mitigation measures in place to provide protection against Covid-19, while balancing the need to keep the economy going.”
As things stand, the Monkey Tree must pay its fine by March 2 or appear in Territorial Court that day to face a judge.