North

Despite complaints, N.W.T. enforcement chief plans to stay the course

The territory's "enforcement task force" has been criticized for its inconsistency and slow response times — but its top officer says their approach is working fine.

'Enforcement task force' has struggled with slow response times, poor data, and inconsistency

Conrad Baetz, right, a deputy chief public health officer for the N.W.T., speaks to a public health officer on the territory's compliance and enforcement task force. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Overnight in early April, Conrad Baetz went from being a mid-level bureaucrat in a minor department to something akin to the N.W.T.'s top cop.

Appointed to lead the territory's COVID-19 "enforcement task force," Baetz's new job is unlike any other — part policing, part public relations — and one that is being largely invented on the fly.

That's had some challenges. In the weeks since the territory first closed its borders and implemented mandatory limits on gatherings, lacklustre enforcement has been a frequent area of complaint.

High-profile violators have gone unprosecuted, travellers have received conflicting advice, and basic data on enforcement has been difficult to obtain.

But in an interview with CBC, Baetz was reserved about the challenges of his role. Even as public health orders — and their gradual repeal — fundamentally alter the lives of people across the country overnight, Baetz said his job will hardly change at all.

"Our rules are our rules," he said. "It's been that way since the beginning."

Inconsistency across territory

Baetz, a former assistant deputy minister for the Department of Lands, oversees a force staffed by former compliance officers from a range of government departments.

Those officers have all undergone what Baetz calls "a fairly extensive training session" to bring them up to speed on public health orders, and many have past experience policing their neighbours as land-use inspectors or environmental officers.

Even so, a lot relies on their judgment. Baetz said "it's at the discretion of the public health officers that are out in the field" whether to issue official warnings to violators or look the other way.

That has led to significant regional differences in how violators are being policed. In the first week of enforcement, for example, the Beaufort Delta region saw hundreds of complaints result in dozens of warnings issued — a far higher rate than anywhere else in the territory.

Violators in the Beaufort Delta region were much more likely to receive an official warning in the first week public health orders were in effect. (Kristian Binder/Eighty One Images)

In the weeks since, the Sahtu has seen nearly half of all complaints result in official warnings, many of them written — resulting in one warning for nearly every 100 residents, more than 10 times as many as in the Yellowknife or neighbouring Dehcho regions.

Baetz shrugged off these differences as "a matter of counting things slightly differently" — and as a positive indicator that the territory's enforcement is not being run from Yellowknife.

"We'll get better at ensuring there is the appropriate consistency from region to region," he said. "But … there will be differences, and I think it's important to understand that."

So far, there have been no summary offence tickets — spot fines for up to $1,500 — despite several high-profile violations.

There will be differences, and I think it's important to understand that.- Conrad Baetz, head of N.W.T.'s COVID-19 enforcement task force

Baetz is adamant that should it come to that, the charge will survive a challenge in territorial court — despite claims by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that the orders they depend on are unconstitutionally broad.

But he also emphasized that the purpose of his enforcement team is not to issue tickets.

"We've said all along … we're not necessarily here to jump out from behind a bush, so to speak, to catch people doing things, but more here to try to encourage people to comply," he said. "The best way to do that is to first educate."

Long delays, poor records

That education has sometimes been imperfect.

Earlier this month, enforcement officers provided conflicting advice about whether an Alberta resident exercising a treaty right could cross the border to access his cabin near Fort Resolution.

Baetz attributed that confusion to new information coming to light about the location of the cabin.

"I think the advice they provided to him, at each time, was correct," he said.

The division has also attracted criticism for failing to keep travellers from entering the territory — a key part of the N.W.T.'s COVID-19 containment strategy.

An Alberta man was given approval by public health officers to hunt near Fort Resolution this month, only to be threatened with removal at the hands of the RCMP days later. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

One traveller from B.C. was allowed to visit Yellowknife for two days unmonitored, while another was told he could return to his hometown before being told by a different public health officer that he would be forced to leave the territory for Edmonton.

Those errors are made worse by poor record-keeping. When CBC requested general records on how many people had been refused entry to or deported from the territory, the division took five days to respond with the information.

The department's own enforcement statistics, shared with CBC, count hundreds of calls requesting general information as complaints — inflating total numbers by 39 per cent.

"The state of our records are just fine," Baetz said in response to these complaints. "With any kind of a new process … [it] evolves over a certain period of time."

Officers have also come under fire for long delays in responding to complaints of violations — delays that may worsen as businesses make moves to reopen.

Responding to these concerns, Baetz declined to provide what he considers an appropriate timeframe for responding to a complaint. Every complaint is "triaged" according to the risk it poses to public health, he said.

"Obviously, ones that are going to or that have a potential to be a real risk to public health in general are going to receive an immediate or a far quicker response," Baetz explained.

"Some of the more administrative-type issues that are brought forward to us, obviously, they might not be quite so high on the list.

"I don't think our timelines have been unreasonable," he said.

Phase 1 increases calls to tip line

Those administrative issues may become more urgent as the territory moves to lift restrictions. Businesses reopening in Phase 1 of the territory's plan will need to have measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Baetz wasn't able to answer questions about how many complaints to date have been related to businesses operating contrary to public health orders, though a spokesperson later clarified it was estimated at "less than five per cent."

But he did say the move to Phase 1 has already generated a large volume of calls to the territory's tip line.

"Previous to Friday, the majority of our calls were related to gatherings," he explained. "Since Friday, we've seen an increase [in calls] … to the Protect NWT line with respect to how businesses open up while staying compliant."

But for Baetz, that doesn't change much.

"Not much has changed, other than you're dealing with a business owner as opposed to an individual," he said.

"Things are working, and because things are working, we're able to loosen some of the rules up a little bit ... It's a long haul, and it's going to continue to be a long haul."

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