North

Big game outfitter denied COVID-19 exemption decries 'unreasonable' health restrictions

‘It was a flat no,’ says Harold Grinde, who’s also on the territory’s new business advisory council. ‘To me it’s unacceptable.’

‘I have zero income this year,’ says chair of NWT Tourism. ‘Zero.’

Gana River Outfitting's base camp, on Palmer Lake in the Mackenzie Mountains, sits empty this year. Owner Harold Grinde has been denied entry to the territory, despite being encouraged to apply for a special exemption. (submitted by Gana River)

A big game outfitter denied an exemption to open his remote hunting camp in the Sahtu says "unreasonable" health restrictions are symptomatic of a government that's failing to lead in a crisis. 

Harold Grinde runs Gana River Outfitters. He's also the chair of NWT Tourism, a signatory to a press release last week that said the government response to COVID-19 showed "no sense of urgency" when it comes to helping business. 

In the latter role, he also sits on the territory's new business advisory council, struck to give the private sector a voice in the government's pandemic response. 

While Grinde is loathe to attack the territory's "very effective" public health response, he says the government has generally been "away without leave." 

"People need help to get back to work and the government isn't there to do it."

'A flat no'

Grinde, who lives in Alberta, has spent four months every summer for the past 24 years in the Sahtu. He's one of just two outfitters to offer horseback hunts, using animals who overwinter in B.C. and are trailered up the Dempster Highway each year. 

Last year at this time, he was already at his camp on Palmer Lake in the Mackenzie Mountains. He and his wife were hosting a week-long Northern Youth Leadership camp, as they do every year, with young people from all over the territory. His crew had just started the five-day trail ride to get the horses to camp. 

This year, he can't even get even get into the territory.

Grinde said he was encouraged by Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Katrina Nokelby to apply to the chief public health officer for an exemption so he could continue to offer hunts. 

Grinde says not allowing tourists to visit his remote camp is unreasonable. Worse, he says, was not getting any explanation as to why. (submitted by Gana River)

He drafted a plan that would have seen clients flown in directly, with no contact with local communities, all holding medical insurance in case of emergency. 

"We waited over a month before we had any response," he said. "And then it was a flat no. No reasoning. Nobody worked with us to try and address any of the specific concerns or gaps in our plans."

Though his clients don't typically spend much time in communities, Grinde said, their money does. 

He estimates his business puts $200,000 a year into local airlines, as well as money spent on groceries and supplies, taxes, and, in a normal year, hotels. 

"I have zero income this year. Zero." 

Government not unreasonable

"We really feel for folks like Mr. Grinde," said Mike Westwick, Health and Social Services's communications manager for COVID-19, in an email. 

But he said denying the business an exemption is neither unreasonable nor unfair. Rather, it's consistent with other requests to go off-grid camping, "no matter the kind of insurance they held." 

If an evacuation were necessary, Westwick wrote, "health system resources in the Northwest Territories" would be required. 

'I have zero income this year,' says Grinde. 'Zero.' (Submitted by Harold Grinde)

Westwick said the pandemic presents "a constantly evolving situation," with room for re-evaluation. 

For now, however, "we believe our self-isolation and travel restriction protocols are the baseline of what we need to protect our communities."

"If we don't keep them up, we may face challenges in responding to the second wave resulting in some heartbreaking outcomes — and a huge financial cost. It's essential we keep that in mind as a territory."

Business council 'frustration'

Grinde says the experience echoes his experience on the territory's new business advisory council, which he characterizes as "frustrating." 

"Our recommendation to government has been: get your people back to work. That's how the government leads." 

The government's latest plan, issued in May, called for a gradual return to the office, with safety at the forefront of case-by-case decisions. 

Grinde is also frustrated by the government's slow pace. For example, a series of questions submitted by the business council two weeks ago were answered yesterday. 

Our recommendation to government has been: get your people back to work. That's how the government leads.- Harold Grinde, Gana River Outfitters

"I'm not kidding. I believe had that been questions that you had presented to any business in the world, you would have had your answers the next day." 

Grinde said he's still in that position. 

"I emailed Protect NWT two weeks ago with specific questions about going into my camp to do some maintenance, maybe build a new cabin," he said. 

"I have had no response. Nothing." 

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