Total of 6 senior N.W.T. officials took holidays out of territory
Unclear how many travelled after premier and top doctor urged public to avoid vacation travel south
The Northwest Territories government now says a total of six senior staffers recently travelled outside of the territory for vacation in spite of concerns about bringing COVID-19 into the territory from the South.
Last week, CBC News reported that at least two senior N.W.T. officials had left the territory over the holidays.
Then, at a COVID-briefing on Jan. 5, the premier said three senior officials travelled outside the territory over the Christmas break, despite the premier and chief public health officer urging the public not to do so. Premier Caroline Cochrane and Dr. Kami Kandola said people should stay at home and not invite guests from the South to come up north, in order to minimize an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the N.W.T. due to holiday travel.
Despite the advice, the deputy minister of health and the associate deputy minister heading up the newly created COVID-19 secretariat travelled south to spend time with their families.
Though the premier would not identify any of the officials by name, CBC News has learned that Pamela Strand, the deputy minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI), was the third official to whom Cochrane was referring.
In addition, according to an emailed response to questions from CBC News, the government said three assistant deputy ministers vacationed outside of the territory. The government would say only that they travelled after Nov. 1. It did not respond to a question about whether they travelled after Nov. 26, when the premier and Kandola urged the public to stay at home.
Cochrane was not available for an interview about the travel of senior staff.
As the top bureaucrat at ITI, Strand was one of the government's main contacts to an advisory committee of business people. The government created the committee — which is made up of volunteers — to come up with ideas for how to help businesses survive the pandemic.
Strand started working for the territorial government after Shear Minerals, a business she founded and led, abandoned a Nunavut gold mine it had purchased.
Cochrane promoted Strand to deputy minister of ITI a year ago.
Premier says policies prevent her from speaking
At a COVID-19 press conference on Jan. 5, the premier said policies prevent her from speaking about the vacation of staff.
CBC News asked what specific policies the premier was referring to. In an email, the government said privacy law requires it to protect the personal information of all N.W.T. residents, including N.W.T. government employees.
"As such it is the practice of the [government of the Northwest Territories] not to disclose any personal or private information about specific employees, related to human resources matters," the email said.
But the information and privacy commissioner said the privacy act does not bar discussion around vacation travel if no employees are identified.
"Questions about how or why approvals for vacation for public servants are made generally… i.e., what policy issues apply, what factors are taken into account, etc. This does not appear to be a question that requires disclosure of personal information to give an answer," Andrew Fox said in an email to CBC News.
This does not appear to be a question that requires disclosure of personal information to give an answer.- Andrew Fox, N.W.T. information and privacy commissioner
Fox also said there is an exception that allows the government to disclose personal information when the public interest in doing so outweighs any invasion of privacy that may result.
In an email, the government says deputy ministers are responsible for approving their own holiday time, but are expected to advise cabinet about arrangements to backfill them when they do go away.
Austin Marshall, a lawyer who specializes in employment law, said the COVID-19 pandemic has created "a paradigm shift in normal workplace rules setting out what employers are required to do."
He also pointed out that a section of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act outlines a list of considerations that must be taken into account when determining whether the release of information amounts to an unreasonable invasion of privacy.
"One of those is if the disclosure is desirable for the purpose of subjecting government activities to public scrutiny," said Marshall.
Marshall said there was nothing preventing the government from urging its staff to follow the recommendations of the chief public health officer.
"I would say the premier, as the senior person on the legislative side of government, can be expected to say to the government workforce, 'Look, these rules and recommendations are in place for the protection of the public. We are being asked to follow them and obey them and respect them, and my communication to all of you is to do that,'" he said.