Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to emphasize that indoor gathering were not banned until April 10.
Health Minister Diane Thom violated her own public health order in March when she attended a cabin party at Airport Lake near Inuvik attended by “no less than 10 people,” including some who were supposed to be in self-isolation, according to a complaint addressed to the territory’s integrity commissioner from Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson.
The two-term MLA’s letter also accuses Premier Caroline Cochrane of misleading MLAs while encouraging Thom to downplay the incident. Jacobson confirmed on June 25 he had written the letter but declined to comment on it when contacted by NNSL Media.
Inuvik Drum believes the incident occurred over March 20-21 based on text messages leaked along with the letter.
While tensions were certainly high the last two weeks of March, indoor gathering were not banned at the time. Thom had declared a Public Health Emergency on March 18. The first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the Northwest Territories was on March 21. Although the Public Health Order banning indoor gatherings was not made until April 10, Chief Public Health officer Kami Kandola had recommended all international travelers self isolate for 14 days on March 15.
Detailing a formal complaint from a member of the public on April 10, 2020, Jacobson’s undated letter claims subsequent complaints were sent to deputy clerk Glen Rutland, legislative assembly speaker Frederick Blake Jr. and Inuvik-Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler. It states that Premier Cochrane twice denied that a formal complaint has been made, first in a cabinet meeting and later on May 26 during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight.
“In March 2020,” reads Jacobson’s letter to NWT integrity commissioner David Jones. “Ms. Thom attended a party at her friend’s cabin near Airport Lake in Inuvik. No less than 10 people attended the party with individuals that were supposed to be in self-quarantine themselves — a violation of the Public Health Order prohibiting such gatherings. The complaint also alleges that Ms. Thom was seen driving a Ski-Doo while under the influence of alcohol the same evening.
“The premier’s choice to willfully mislead her caucus colleagues and the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight is extremely unfortunate. She may try to argue that she was not aware of a complaint but text messages between myself and Ms. Thom prove that not only was the Premier aware of the complaint but actively instructed Ms. Thom to downplay the seriousness of the event in an effort to save face publicly.
“I have included for your reference and consideration copies of evidence that I received in Min. Diane Thom’s own words as you can clearly see a draft of her public apology related to these events.”
The letter goes on to recommend an independent investigation from outside the Northwest Territories be conducted into the allegations.
NNSL Media reached out to both Thom and Cochrane for comment. Thom initially indicated to NNSL Media June 25 that she wanted to explain her side of the story but later that evening a statement was issued by Shaun Dean, cabinet communications and protocol director.
“Neither the Premier, nor the Minister have seen the letter you are referring to, so are not in a position to comment on anything it might say,” reads the statement. “If the matter is being referred to the Integrity Commissioner for investigation, as you have mentioned, then it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment before he has had an opportunity to consider it formally. Obviously, both the Premier and the Minister will cooperate fully with any review the Integrity Commissioner does. ”
NNSL Media obtained a copy of the draft apology mentioned in Jacobson’s letter, which was never published but was to be released in conjunction with heightened restrictions that banned house parties and other gatherings on April 10.
“Friends — I want to address the serious allegations made to a senior deputy minister that I was out at my cabin last weekend partying, and that there were young people involved,” reads the draft apology by Thom. “I can confirm that myself and two of my friends did go to my cabin for the day to shovel snow off my cabin decks. We went on separate snowmobiles and practiced proper social distancing, while traveling, shoveling off the decks and afterwards while relaxing and warming up in the cabin before heading home.
“While we were shoveling, one of my cousins and three of his friends showed up looking to borrow some gas as he was running low. I unlocked my shed and got out the five gallon Jerry Can I had. They were each on their own sleds and sat on them while my cousin gassed up and drank a beer. It is important to note they are all adults and were only in my yard for 15 minutes before they left. Myself and my friends were on my deck and my nephew and his friends were on their sleds in the yard.”
“I understand that as an elected official, and particularly the Minister of Health and Social Services during a Health Emergency, that my actions are under scrutiny and that sometimes the optics of a situation will lead to speculation on the part of residents. I will continue to follow the directions and orders of the Chief Public Health Officer and am further modifying my behaviour in light of the orders made today banning all gatherings.
“In closing, there was a very innocent explanation for what happened at my cabin last weekend. I do realize, however, that we all need to be vigilant, and that bringing these concerns forward, so they could be addressed, was the proper thing to do.
“I hope this explanation provides comfort that as Minister of Health and Social Services, I am not flaunting the rules and am doing my part to keep northerners safe from the Covid 19 virus.
“Have a blessed Easter with your immediate household and remember to Stand Together by Staying Apart. – Diane”