Liard First Nation will be taking over border enforcement at Watson Lake and Junction 37 in November after a change in contract. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News file)

Liard First Nation will be taking over border enforcement at Watson Lake and Junction 37 in November after a change in contract. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News file)

Liard First Nation takes over Watson Lake COVID-19 border enforcement operations

The Yukon government will be funding the contract through a transfer payment

Liard First Nation will be taking over border enforcement at Watson Lake and Junction 37 in November after a change in contract.

“It’s actually … a great thing because we’ve been taking staff from all over the territory and sending them to Watson Lake,” said Community Services Minister John Streicker.

Streicker said he met with the new chief and council in late summer to discuss various involvement between the two governments, and the decision to transfer the contract to the First Nation evolved from that discussion.

He said the hours of operation and staffing requirements won’t change under the new contract with Liard First Nation.

“They know that the hours … could be adjusted, and we would just adjust the transfer payment agreement as necessary with that agreement that we have with them to provide that service,” he said.

Under the partnership, the Yukon government has worked with the Liard First Nation on training for how declarations work. The Yukon government will fund the work through a transfer payment.

In addition, staff have been trained on how to de-escalate when faced with conflict, and when to reach out to senior enforcement officers or the RCMP. Streicker said enforcement officers are based in Watson Lake and across the territory, with an investigation unit in Whitehorse.

“It’s not that different than how we train our own folks. So it’s similar to what we’ve done to set up the border in the first place and get that training in place,” Streicker said.

The new contract for $584,000 lasts five months, from November 2020 to March 2021, and includes providing information and flagging services south of Watson Lake on the Alaska Highway and at Junction 37.

In comparison, the previous contract for flagging was $374,000 for six months from May to October 2020. In addition, Yukon government staff (on average around nine full-time equivalent positions) from various departments worked as information officers each day.

The previous contractor who was paid for flagging, Watson Lake-based Northern Enviro Services, expressed disappointment about the way the change was communicated in an Oct. 28 letter addressed to Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai and Premier Sandy Silver.

In the letter Lorena Funnell notes that the company was granted the contract under tender and it “very much helped us through these incredibly challenging times.”

Funnell said the company found out that Iyon Kechika Contracting Ltd, a Lower Post B.C.-based company, would be taking over the contract. In the letter, Funnell said that Northern Enviro outbid Iyon Kechika in the previous RFP process.

“We understand that the government is working with Liard First Nation to move forward in a positive manner, however taking contracts from one local contractor to give to Liard First Nation to contract to a company from B.C is not developing any economic benefit to the Yukon or the community of Watson Lake,” Funnell wrote.

Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon said under the new process, there isn’t transparency over how the new contract is being financially sourced. He said he also had concerns over how the change was communicated.

Streicker said the territorial government is engaged in a government-to-government relationship with the Liard First Nation and that the responsibility for contracts is now in their hands.

“I trust that they will have their own policies about how they deal with procurement,” he said. “I asked that anyone we were working with that we would let them know that they should be speaking with the Liard First Nation because they may want to continue providing that service.”

Those entering the territory from Outside across the land border are required to speak with border agents about their travel and sign a declaration to obey Civil Emergency Measures Act orders, including self-isolation protocols.

On Sept. 30 the government decided to change the border enforcement hours from 24 hours to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. When not present, those entering are to fill out declarations on an “honour system.”

“More or less, people have followed all of the rules. When I look at the enforcement statistics, it’s been pretty good and we haven’t had significant caseloads that we think are related to that travel. So we think that the system is pretty robust, but we do keep an eye on it to make sure,” Streicker said.

He noted that seasonal travel from B.C. has seen a decline, and noted that the hotspots for COVID-19 are located in the southern part of the province, suggesting that the airport is a more likely centre of arrivals for people entering the Yukon from there.

Streicker said the government is also considering introducing video surveillance at the border, and random evening shifts to encourage enforcement.

“It would help to reinforce the fact that everyone coming across in the after-hours who’s required to fill out a declaration would do so,” he said.

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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