Yellowknife city councillors narrowly voted on Monday to require proof of vaccination at city facilities to increase capacity after the majority had expressed opposition a week earlier.
Four councillors and the mayor voted in favour of the policy on Monday night. Councillor Robin Williams’ vote proved key as he shifted his position, opting to back the requirement. Last week, only the mayor and two council members said they were in support.
Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza – who had not attended last week’s discussion – joined Shauna Morgan, Julian Morse, Mayor Rebecca Alty, and Williams in supporting the move.
Williams said he did not fully support the policy as written, nor the idea of barring people from facilities over vaccination status. He explained, however, that his stance changed after user groups told him how they had been impacted by pandemic restrictions.
“I don’t want to put my hand up for this one but, unfortunately, that’s the decision we have to make as council,” he said. “I certainly hope politics can ease at some point in our society and maybe we can compromise a bit. I see that compromise has to happen only from one side, and I guess I’ve got to be that guy.”
Councillors Niels Konge, Steve Payne, Rommel Silverio, and Stacie Smith opposed the requirement, voicing concern on the grounds of fairness.
“We’re already treating unvaccinated people as if they’re infected,” Payne said.
Konge said he would have supported the policy had it only applied to people aged 18 and older. Otherwise, he feels it unfairly impacts children whose parents don’t support vaccination. Like many councillors, he said the decision was a tough one to make.
“This is the worst decision I have ever had to make on council,” he said.
The NWT government introduced territory-wide rules late last month that limit gatherings to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors. But non-essential businesses and organizations – including the city – can increase those caps if they limit entry to fully vaccinated people (or those who are ineligible for vaccination, like children under 12).
Mayor Alty said as of Monday, 88 percent of residents aged 12 and up in Yellowknife were fully or partially vaccinated against Covid-19. According to the territorial government, 85 percent of residents in Yellowknife, Ndilǫ, and Dettah aged 12 or over are fully vaccinated.
What council’s decision means for facilities
Some groups that use city facilities – like soccer and hockey leagues – have already activated proof of vaccination to increase the number of players and, in some cases, spectators allowed to attend. Council’s decision did not directly affect those groups but does mean capacities can increase for city programs.
Affected facilities include the library, public skates at arenas, and the fieldhouse’s play groups, walking track, and climbing wall.
At Ruth Inch Memorial Pool, the decision affects public swims, lessons, programs, rentals, the steam room, and the hot tub.
Restrictions may also be loosened that prevented some staff working at City Hall and some in-person meetings and hearings.
The city will now apply to the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer to increase capacity limits at its facilities.
City staff had strongly recommended implementing a proof-of-vaccination policy, citing public health, the obligation to provide a safe work environment, and concerns about a loss in revenue from user fees if capacities remained reduced.
The city calculated that if the current restrictions remained in place for a year, a $213,000 loss would result. That would have to be made up by an increase in taxes or reduction in services elsewhere.
Hundreds voice opinions
Monday’s decision follows a contentious debate not only among members of council, but also residents of Yellowknife.
Ahead of the vote, more than 300 residents wrote to city council about the proof-of-vaccination policy. City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said there was roughly an even split between those in favour and those against.
Ten residents spoke at Monday’s meeting.
Seven of them – Zabey Nevitt, Coleen Wellborn, Tom McLennan, Dustin Martin, Tim Morton, Mike Otto, and Michelle Leger – shared comments in support of the vaccine requirement.
They highlighted the impact reduced capacity would have on youth, volunteers, spectators, and user fees, along with the potential risks to unvaccinated children, immunocompromised people, and city staff.
Carol Lockhart and Ariel Stuart spoke against barring unvaccinated people from city facilities, stating concern about fairness and conflicts with the vision of Yellowknife as a “welcoming, inclusive, and prospering community.”
Cathy Allooloo said the policy amounted to coercion and a criminal offence. She referred to the NWT’s Covid-19 vaccines, which have been fully approved by Health Canada, as “experimental gene therapy work,” called people who question the science behind vaccines “roaring lions,” and referenced the Nuremberg Code and human rights legislation.
The Nuremberg Code refers to 10 ethical principles for human experimentation that resulted from the trials of Nazi physicians who carried out medical experiments on unwilling prisoners of war and Jewish prisoners. Claims that vaccine mandates violate the code have been repeatedly debunked.
The NWT Human Rights Commission issued a statement on mandatory vaccines last month, saying a person who chooses not to get vaccinated because of a personal choice is not protected under the territory’s Human Rights Act.
When Allooloo compared the “present point in history” to the 1930s, “where a small number understood where this was headed and many more got swept along with the crowd and did nothing to stop it,” Councillor Morse interrupted. He objected to what he called a “completely inappropriate” comparison of vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Allooloo insisted she had not been referring to the Holocaust.
“I can’t sit here and listen to it,” Morse said.
Smith defends Konge’s comments
It was not the first time comparisons of pandemic restrictions to discriminatory laws had raised eyebrows at city council.
Councillor Konge last week compared the proof-of-vaccination requirement to racial segregation. On Monday, he repeated an apology for the remarks that he issued last week.
Konge had previously, separately apologized for comparing the challenges of small businesses during the pandemic to the Sixties Scoop.
Several residents say they have filed complaints with the city’s integrity commissioner over the comments.
Councillor Smith on Monday defended Konge, saying that “as an Indigenous person” she didn’t feel the comparison “that shook a city” was racist.
“Probably not the best analogy but what they were getting at was division, segregation. They said what many were thinking but few dare to say because of the backlash,” she said. “This is the kind of passion you want.”
Smith spoke against what she called “hurtful statements from the public” over councillors’ discussion of the vaccine mandate, along with last month’s decision to reject the territory’s request to use a downtown building as a day shelter. She said she has also been accused of being racist against Indigenous people and the public response has affected her family and her livelihood.
Many other councillors said it had been a difficult week but noted many people care about the community, regardless of where they stand on the vaccine policy.
“Let us not forget how far we have come in building this beautiful community, a community of brotherly love, trust, and tolerance where calling each other racist has no place,” Councillor Mufandaedza said.
“We might differ in our opinion and how we express our opinions, but that does not make us racist.”