The Yukon’s top stories of 2021

The last year has been turbulent in the Yukon.

The territory grappled with its first real waves of COVID-19, beginning with an outbreak over the summer. Health officials raced the waves with an aggressive vaccination campaign. Eventually, mandates were placed for public sector employees and many businesses.

As the pandemic laboured on, Yukoners also faced an opioid crisis, sexual assault scandal, record-breaking flooding and a deadly shooting.

Here are the top eight stories of 2021 as decided by Yukon News staff.

Vaccine controversy in Beaver Creek

One of the territory’s smallest communities made global headlines in January when a wealthy couple travelled from Vancouver to Beaver Creek and pretended to be locals in order to jump the queue for the vaccine.

By January 2021, northern communities were under tight border controls and had been prioritized for the first doses of the Moderna vaccine. The western community of Beaver Creek, home to White River First Nation, had its vaccine clinic scheduled for Jan. 20.

The general public in British Columbia would end up getting their first vaccine appointments a few months later.

Not soon enough for casino mogul Rodney Baker and actress Ekaterina Baker, a couple who were living in Toronto but had formerly lived in Vancouver at the start of the pandemic.

The Bakers decided to fly to the Yukon, charter a flight from Whitehorse to Beaver Creek, and show up at the vaccine clinic pretending to be new workers at the only hotel in town. Not a smart move in a community of around 100 people.

While they did get their first doses of the vaccine and managed to fly back to Whitehorse, they were headed off by Civil Emergency Measures Act enforcement officers at the airport, who charged them both with breaking public health orders.

Six months later, the couple appeared in court over video and pleaded guilty to breaking self-isolation measures.

They were fined a total of $2,300. The judge estimated the amount they spent on the scheme totalled well over $10,000. Given the chance to apologize in court, the couple remained silent.

For the residents of Beaver Creek, the couple’s actions had the impact of sleepless nights and anxiety, as they reflected on being lied to and imagined the worst-case scenario for unvaccinated elders.

“Educate yourself,” Janet VanderMeer, a member of the White River First Nation and a resident of Beaver Creek, told the couple in her community impact statement read in the courthouse on June 16. “Educate yourself on First Nations people and small communities. Educate yourself.”

(Haley Ritchie)

Vaccine clinics and controversy

For most, 2021 brought the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19, after the first shipment of Moderna arrived in the territory on Dec. 29.

While mobile teams set out to communities throughout the territory in mid-January, the doors to the Yukon Convention Centre opened in Whitehorse.

Many children ages five to 11 have been making their way to the clinic with their families since early December after Pfizer’s vaccine for that age group was approved Nov. 19.

Vaccine records are now required to get into a number of public places.

Not all are on board with vaccine requirements, with protests against COVID regulations taking place at Shipyards Park each Saturday.

While a majority of eligible adults have chosen to be vaccinated, the Yukon government’s mandate requiring employees to be vaccinated has seen at least 336 not attest by Nov. 30, resulting in leave without pay. Employees are also required a second dose by Jan. 30.

A number of other organizations are also moving to vaccine mandates, including the City of Whitehorse, which will require employees to have two COVID-19 vaccine doses by Feb. 20, 2022 unless they complete a medical accommodation process.

(Stephanie Waddell)

A multi-election year

Yukoners went to the polls three times this year for territorial, federal and municipal elections.

In the spring, following a successful vaccination rollout, the Yukon Liberals rolled the dice on a snap election. They entered the campaign with a slim majority of 11 MLAs, but would end the tight race with only eight.

A tie-vote in Old Crow resulted in Yukon NDP candidate Annie Blake winning with a name drawn from a box. Her win triggered the first minority government in the territory in over 30 years. In order to secure power, the NDP and Liberals brokered an agreement based on shared policy goals, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing in the house this year. The so-called CASA agreement remains in place until January 2022.

In the fall, Canadians across the country were asked to head to the polls again to choose a federal government and prime minister. In the Yukon, long-time MP Larry Bagnell retired, clearing the way for former Chief Medical Officer Brendan Hanley to run for office.

A vaccine-related upset in the Conservative riding association meant a last-minute switch of their candidate, from previous almost-winner Jonas Smith to political newcomer Barbara Dunlop.

In a similar outcome as the territorial election, Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government lost seats in the election. But they held onto the territory and Hanley resigned his position to head to Ottawa.

In October, Yukoners were asked to cast one more ballot in the municipal election.

In the capital, former councillor Laura Cabott was voted in alongside four new councillors and two returning. Bill Kendrick was elected mayor in Dawson City, Lee Brodie in Carmacks, Bruce Tomlin in Haines Junction, Chris Irvin in Watson Lake and Jack Bowers in Faro.

(Haley Ritchie)

Unmarked graves spur new conversations about reconciliation

A renewed focus on reconciliation began with the May 2021 discovery of 215 unmarked and undocumented graves at a former residential school site in Kamloops, British Columbia. That initial discovery was followed with searches at other school sites across the country that yielded more than 1,000 additional graves.

In Yukon, a Warrior Walk for Healing Nations was organized by Jamie Henyu from Telegraph Creek, B.C. and Jacqueline Shorty of Yukon’s Northern Nations Alliance. It saw a group of people march from Whitehorse to Kamloops over the course of the summer. The walk began in late June and arrived in Kamloops six weeks and 2,000 kilometres later on Aug. 10.

Also of note was the ceremonial destruction of the Lower Post Residential School on the territory of the Kaska First Nation in late June, and the creation of a quilt by Mayo resident Velma Olsen to be sent to Kamloops in memory of the lost children.

Whitehorse’s streets were a sea of orange shirts for the first nationally-recognized day for truth and reconciliation held on Sept. 30. Thousands of people marched through town to a memorial event at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

(Jim Elliot)

Severe flooding evacuates Yukoners

With twice the normal snowfall in the Yukon’s Southern Lakes region, lakeside residents were worried as the melt began in spring 2021. Hydrologists tried to calm worries, explaining how the historic 2007 flood had not been caused by snowmelt, but by July rains. However, as the waters began rising quickly in June, those same hydrologists reconsidered their predictions. A flood warning was issued.

At a Marsh Lake community meeting June 29, the Yukon government and Yukon Energy showed concern. Words like unprecedented, rapid and unpredictable were used.

Flood experts from the Prairies were arriving the next day. A few days later federal minister Bill Blair tweeted that the Canadian Armed Forces were on their way.

Facebook helper networks kicked into gear and coordinated widespread volunteerism from supportive Yukoners who helped fill, tie and load sandbags wherever they were needed.

A flood alert was issued July 9. The rate of water rise slowed, but tens of millions of dollars of property values were at risk. The water on the three lakes of Marsh, Tagish and Bennett peaked on July 10. Laberge peaked on July 17.

By the time the flood waters started receding, more than 550,000 sandbags and 2,000 super bags had been deployed to protect residents and their properties. On Sept. 3, the flood emergency was lifted.

The water levels of Bennett, Tagish and Marsh Lakes had exceeded their historic high levels by 22 centimetres, and on Lake Laberge by twice that, at 44 centimetres over the record set in 2007.

(Lawrie Crawford)

Territory battles opioid deaths

In 2021, the Yukon’s Chief Coroner, Heather Jones, issued five news releases documenting the number of Yukoners who were dying with opioids and fentanyl in their system.

No part of our society is unaffected, she said.

Twenty-one people died in the territory up until Dec. 1. Opioid deaths represent over 20 per cent of all deaths investigated by Yukon Coroner’s Service from Jan. 1 to Nov. 26.

Yukon exceeded the rate of opioid deaths in British Columbia as calculated on a per capita basis. Jones noted that men in their 40’s predominate the statistics, but that the age range is for people in their early 20’s to people in their early 70’s.

Jones added that most people are dying alone.

The crisis is complicated by the combinations of drugs that people are taking which is compromising the effectiveness of naloxone.

Both Jones and former Chief Medical Officer of Health, Brendan Hanley, also noted in the press conferences that deaths attributable to alcohol are less measurable, but more prevalent.

(Lawrie Crawford)

Hidden Valley assault comes to light

The Yukon government came under fire for how it dealt with a case in 2019 of a student who was sexually assaulted by an education assistant at Hidden Valley Elementary School.

The perpetrator, William Auclair-Bellemare, was fired and eventually convicted, though the rest of the school community was never notified.

It was also learned that RCMP never broadened their investigation to determine if more students had been victimized. Then-Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee was supplied with briefing material and a communications strategy was prepared in 2019, but it was never acted on.

With no information from the school, even parents of children who worked with Auclair-Bellemare remained unaware of potential abuse.

It was after outcry from parents that RCMP continued an investigation, laying eight new charges in September. They have yet to be heard in court.

The revelation of the situation saw the Yukon Party opposition put forward a motion for McPhee’s resignation, which proved unsuccessful.

Auclair-Bellemere is also facing two civil lawsuits, which have yet to be heard in court.

(Stephanie Waddell)

Faro shooting leaves two dead

A shooting spree in October 2021 rocked the tiny town of Faro and sent ripples through the rest of the Yukon.

On Oct. 26, Faro residents were warned to shelter in place by social media posts and an emergency phone alert.

The following day, police confirmed that two Faro residents were dead and another seriously injured. Ralph Bernard Shaw, 61, was charged for the shootings at multiple locations across Faro.

Shaw remains in custody facing two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault.

The victims were identified in the days after the shooting.

One was 42-year-old Saengduean Honchaiyaphum, who had been married to Shaw. A legal proceeding under the Yukon’s Family Violence Protection Act was initiated in 2021 but no further details about it are publically accessible. Honchaiyaphum leaves behind two young children.

The other man killed in the shooting was 73-year-old Patrick McCracken, a man well known for his community service on Faro’s town council and as the zamboni driver at the town’s ice rink.

Gilbert Boudreau was seriously injured in the shooting. A Dec. 7 update on a GoFundMe said he had been released from the hospital.

Efforts to grapple with the tragedy included a vigil in Faro, a sacred fire and half-mast flags in Whitehorse and a series of online fundraisers hoping to assist the shooting victims and their families.

Shaw made first appearances in court to begin answering for the charges and will be back before a judge in the new year.

(Jim Elliot)