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Sam’s Monkey Tree cleared of Covid-19 wrongdoing

The co-owners of the Monkey Tree are officially off the hook.
Steve Dinham and Jen Vornbrock, co-owners of Sam’s Monkey Tree Pub, stand outside the Yellowknife Courthouse Friday morning following the dismissal of the court case against them. The pub was the only business charged under then-public health orders at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jonathan Gardiner/NNSL photo

The co-owners of the Monkey Tree are officially off the hook.

Jen Vornbrock and Steve Dinham were in territorial court Friday morning to hear whether or not they would face punishment for violating the territory’s Covid-19 regulations. In the end, the case was dismissed.

In her ruling, Deputy Judge Bernadette Schmaltz gave the verdict that the charge against them was being dismissed. In making the ruling, Schmaltz said Roger Shepard, a lawyer for the GNWT, gave no evidence the owners knew that the dance floor was supposed to be closed because they hadn’t been properly informed.

Without that, Schmaltz ruled that she could not find the pub guilty.

The whole thing began when a group of five individuals – which included WSCC, health and liquor inspectors – came into the business on Dec. 11, 2020. They requested paperwork and to discuss paperwork upgrades at the time and conduct inspections.

That visit resulted in a charge on Dec. 15 under public health orders at the time totaling $5,175: a $4,500 fine and a $675 surcharge. Vornbrock told Yellowknifer that the charge was in relation to an incident that occurred the month prior, when a liquor report indicated a total of 132 people — patrons and staff — were in the premises.

The pub was allowed to have 125 patrons indoors and 50 patrons on the patio.

In a previous interview with Yellowknifer, Vornbrock said she planned on fighting the charge and that she was frustrated with the outcome of it all.

Her issue was the inconsistency and lack of clarity on how Covid-19 rules were enforced.

“Not everybody is playing by the same rules and there is no consistency within the departments,” she said in an interview in January 2021. “Not all are treated the same and a great example is senior officials getting to go outside the territory after being asked to stay home.”

Joshua Halpern, a Toronto-based lawyer who had represented similar cases through what was known as Fight The Fines, a movement associated with Rebel News, originally took on the case, but left the case in June 2021. Vornbrock told Yellowknifer that a Northern-based lawyer would appear on their behalf going forward. That turned out to be Jay Bran, who was in court Friday morning with Dinham and Vornbrock for the decision.

Outside the courtroom, Vornbrock hugged Bran and said the ruling meant so much to her.

In an interview with Yellowknifer following the verdict, Vornbrock said she was determined to fight during the challenging circumstances.

“We didn’t stand down because of this, or let it negatively impact us,” she said. “We just kept going.”

She also shared her disappointment with how the territorial government handed the situation.

“(We) didn’t need to go through all of this. We could have just had some conversations and redirection,” she said.

Vornbrock hopes that the dismissal of the case clears the air and that the public will know it’s safe to come to the Monkey Tree.

The pub was the only food-and-drink establishment to be charged and taken to court for violating a public health order during the height of the pandemic.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of patrons allowed inside the Monkey Tree.