Transcripts from two community calls on COVID-19 illuminate local leaders’ concerns and challenges around rights and enforcement of public health orders in the summer of 2021. The Yukon had just seen its first spike of locally transmitted COVID-19 cases from graduation parties the month before.
Yukon First Nation chiefs and senior officials, territorial ministers and Yukon government officials, and mayors and municipal officials attended the calls in late July 2021, according to the transcript. The transcript was part of documents previously released under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
In the transcript from July 21, 2021, Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn told attendees they were getting a preview of the changes in COVID-19 restrictions that will be happening in the territory in the coming weeks. Those changes include removing the self-isolation requirement for people travelling within Canada to the Yukon for everyone, including unvaccinated and partially vaccinated; removing mask mandates; and removing provisions in bars and restaurants such as the limit on people at tables and spacing.
The identities of attendees who asked questions and some of the questions themselves are redacted from the transcript.
In response to a redacted question, Mostyn said:
“In Canada, with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there is a legal necessity for Canadians to live in a free and open society, which at this time overrides the state of emergency. That time has come in the territory and across the country. We are moving back to ‘normal’. People have choices to make to be vaccinated or not. That is where we are at. We cannot continue putting these restrictions on society as we have so many vaccinated people.”
In response to a redacted question, Dr. Catherine Elliott said:
“It has been a rough ride and touched all of us. For many people seeing that has changed their thinking on vaccination and have come forward. Some have not. Some do not trust government. That is really where leadership is really important as they do trust chiefs and mayors sharing the message about the safety of the vaccine.”
In response to a redacted question, Mostyn said:
“This government and [chief medical officer of health] have worked to protect people in the territory. We have done an admirable job and led efforts. The modelling we have done has protected people. Because of legal framework we live under we have to weigh health benefit to a free and open society to wear or not wear a mask and right to be vaccinated or not.”
On July 27, then-chief medical officer of health Dr. Brendan Hanley gave an overview. He said:
“Risk is no longer at borders as it is in the gatherings and informal gatherings with unvaccinated people. That leads us to outbreaks and large caseloads.”
In response, an attendee, whose name is redacted, said:
“As community leaders it was challenging to not have more information.”
One attendee drew a picture of what happened the previous weekend when three cases arrived at an unnamed hotel Friday night for isolation.
“We know one was [COVID-19] and two were just isolating. All three participates didn’t care about it,” reads the transcript.
“They were drunk the entire time and had been drunk for many days before that. In and out of each other’s room, in the bar, sitting in the lobby. The hotel staff were beside themselves telling them they need to self-isolate. They wouldn’t listen.”
The transcript indicates the enforcement team was called, but was not available; the health centre was called; the police were called but they were busy; the person who set them up at the hotel was called but didn’t return the call.
“The chief and I were calling back and forth. There were many parties that weekend. The chief went to one of the parties, she went and found one and shut one down. The next day same thing. The enforcement team came later that night and gave them all $500 tickets,” reads the transcript.
“I know they don’t have the money to pay the fines,” the attendee said.
“Enforcement did what they could do, but told me they only have so much regulation as their hands are tied. The one with [COVID-19] was in her last days, so she went home but we found out her significant other has [COVID-19]. It was a mish-mash of worst-case scenario.”
The attendee asked what else could be done.
“Is there some way the enforcement can be stepped up and get them out of the community when this happens? … Can we get stronger regulations?” the attendee said.
“The chief and I were so frustrated and did not know what to do.”
Minister McPhee suggested to contact the nurse’s station, the deputy minister or the minister.
“I appreciate you describing this situation. We have had situations in other communities not dissimilar to this one, maybe not with the amount of parties,” she said.
“We had an individual in a community who was refusing to self-isolate. It turns out their family said they couldn’t self-isolate at their home and they didn’t have anywhere to go. They sent transport and brought them to High Country Inn in Whitehorse with food and wrap around services, if they are struggling with addictions or need something to help with self-isolation. We cannot do it in every community. We have self-isolation facilities in communities. The services are slightly different. We are happy to try and address them top down if necessary if you are able to contact me or Stephen Samis.”
The attendee said “they were having a party and ordering hundreds of dollars of food”, putting the staff in an uncomfortable situation.
“I want to be able to prevent this. There has to be stronger measures. They should be held accountable for their actions. Five-hundred-dollar fines not working.”
McPhee said the Yukon government uses “education and talking to people” instead of other forms of punishment.
“That is a reason we try to avoid that type of enforcement as it’s not realistic,” she said.
Hanley commented on the “extremely challenging circumstances.”
“We have seen a number of them. No shame for your community, this is just what we see with the situation of people who are unvaccinated, vulnerable or addicted. The legacy of colonialism and trauma and plays into the disease, which has threatened to spread with someone who has it when they are drunk and vulnerable. Ideally if they were vaccinated it wouldn’t be an issue. The more we can get people vaccinated the more we can avoid situations like this. There will be ongoing difficult situations that we can hopefully support by case management,” he said.
“There is a difficulty in putting drunk, infected people in jail. Sometimes just demonstrating that enforcement is a tool that can help manage these cases.”
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org