Editor’s note: this column has been updated to reflect today’s statement from the GNWT on border restrictions for non-Northerners.
OK now I am really confused.
For months now, the GNWT and Health Minister Diane Thom have been consistent in their messaging with respect to our border – that it is closed to all people except NWT residents and a short list of approved essential workers.
Earlier this week, our premier seems to have directly contradicted her health minister and the public health order. She said on a national CBC show that the NWT border is in fact open to all Canadian residents, provided they self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival (just like what is required of any NWT resident). The premier even went so far as to encourage tourists to come to the NWT and witness our beautiful scenery. For two weeks of isolation that would be the beige walls of some hotel, but that is beside the point.
What is going on here? No matter which way you slice it, this is a mess-up.
The less problematic scenario would be if our premier’s statements on TV were simply wrong. Certainly, it would be a little embarrassing if our moment in the national spotlight is highlighted by our premier getting the facts incorrect, but nothing that a quick admission and sincere apology wouldn’t fix. These are trying times, our top officials are under immense pressure, and they should be forgiven the occasional misstep in front of the microphones and cameras.
Unfortunately, it seems like the more problematic scenario has occurred, and the premier’s statements are right. If she is, the GNWT has been for months communicating, applying and enforcing restrictions at our border that do not exist in any law or health order. This means that all those people who were turned away at the NWT border over the past few months were likely barred without cause or legal justification.
It also means we didn’t have to tell friends and family they couldn’t come here to visit, even if it was for a wedding, funeral, or to care for a loved one. Those many community projects and business ventures that rely on some southern labour and expertise – perhaps they didn’t have to completely cancel their 2020.
In a Wednesday press release, the GNWT all but admitted that their approach to having people turned around at the border and sent back to their previous destination was likely in breach of the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms. The Charter, the highest law in the country, provides for the freedom of movement of all Canadian residents within the country, and outweighs any public health order.
I imagine there are some lawyers sharpening their pencils right now as they work with clients whose mobility rights may have been infringed by the GNWT’s potentially unconstitutional actions over the past months. How many families have been kept apart by GNWT border enforcement? How many businesses are on the brink because they have not been able to access seasonal workforces from out of territory? How many people with roots in the NWT have been stranded in other parts of the country, unable to come back to the territory to shelter from Covid-19?
However this ends up shaking out, we are seeing increasing signs of trouble and discord among our top officials. First it was the ill-advised and short-lived attempt to remove Minister Nokleby. Now we have this disconnect between the premier and her health department, followed by the troubling revelation that the GNWT may have overstepped its legal authority at our border. None of this bodes well for our trust in a government that we are relying on to navigate us through these very difficult times.