North·One year of COVID-19

Fear and loathing: How neighbour turned on neighbour in the N.W.T.'s first pandemic month

As public health officials ratcheted up rhetoric about the dangers of COVID-19, residents took to tip lines by the hundreds to report family, friends and neighbours.

Records show residents reporting infractions as minor as receiving a letter, ‘walking around town’

Reports from the N.W.T.'s ProtectNWT COVID-19 tip line show how many residents leapt at the opportunity to report neighbours for minor infractions. (Gajus/Shutterstock)

This story is part of a series marking one year of COVID-19 in the North.

The Northwest Territories can sometimes feel like one of the few places untouched by COVID-19.

Today, employment in the territory is rising, drinks are flowing at Yellowknife pubs, and many classrooms are just as tightly filled with children as before. But it wasn't always this way.

In the pandemic's first month, the N.W.T. was under some of the most restrictive health measures in the country. Residents were barraged by warnings from politicians and health officials that a single outbreak could welcome catastrophe.

It was during this time that health officials unveiled the ProtectNWT COVID-19 hotline, an anonymous tip line for reporting perceived violations of public health orders and guidelines.

CBC News has reviewed hundreds of complaints submitted to the territory's COVID-19 compliance reporting hotline in the first month of the pandemic, between March 26 and April 21. 

The records show how fear of COVID-19 consumed many northerners — and drove hundreds to report their friends, colleagues, and even family members for even the most minor transgressions.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer for the N.W.T., speaking to reporters following the identification of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the territory. The same day, she announced the creation of the ProtectNWT tip line. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

'Surge in demand' days after tip line goes live

In late March, only one legally binding public health order was in effect — one requiring travellers to the territory, and returning residents, to self-isolate for 14 days.

Nonetheless, in the first few days after the tip line was announced, hundreds of residents reported neighbours for perceived violations as minor as "walking around town," playing music, receiving a letter, or posting pictures taken outdoors on Facebook.

"I appreciate being able to make this report — and especially appreciate that I will not be named to the residents," wrote one complainant.

In fact, by March 31, just a few days after the tip line came online, reports were already slipping through the cracks due to a "surge in demand," as noted in one record.

A client of the Salvation Army in downtown Yellowknife was interrogated by health officials after an anonymous report, but was found to be trying hard to minimize risk. (The Salvation Army Yellowknife/Facebook)

Many of these early reports take on an ugly quality. There was a Yellowknife nurse who reported a neighbour for hosting "Asian tourists" later discovered to be essential workers. 

There was an anonymous report of a man failing to self-isolate, when he was merely staying in temporary housing at the Salvation Army after a move from Fort Providence. Officers interrogated him only to hear he was largely respecting the rules, even securing a COVID-19 test for a cough he picked up while on the street.

And in one report from April 5, Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik Twin Lakes, forwarded a report of a self-isolating woman who let her uncle, who lived "on the street," enter her home. Investigators chastised the woman for allowing a visitor.

Contacted by CBC, Semmler said this complaint was one of many she heard from residents in the early days of COVID-19, which she forwarded on to ProtectNWT.

"That was the only thing we really had" to help calm constituents fearful of the disease, she said.

"In the beginning, I felt that people needed to know that there was somebody looking into protecting them," Semmler said. "There was just so much fear."

Business reported before it was built

Businesses were not spared suspicion. Within days of the chief public health officer advising businesses to take common-sense precautions against COVID-19, residents were reporting workers in Yellowknife, Fort McPherson, Hay River and Behchokǫ̀ for supposedly violating rules.

Public health officers almost invariably found they were simply catching up to changing guidelines.

One person reported the Yellowknife Walmart for inadequate COVID-19 prevention even after they began wiping down carts, installing plastic barriers, and enforcing physical distancing in the store.

Yellowknife's Walmart was a frequent target of complaints, despite introducing several special measures to reduce the risk from COVID-19. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Another reported workers at the Independent grocery store for not changing their plastic gloves after each "potential contamination event."

Yet another reported a mini-golf course in Fort Resolution — before it was even built.

Some complaints bordered on paranoia. One man spent 37 minutes on the phone with call centre workers, panicked about authorities' recommendation to go "out on the land," and worried that COVID-19 could have made it via wastewater into the lakes and rivers.

"The telephone conversation ended poorly," the record notes.

Repeat violators issued verbal warnings

While many of the records detail reminders given to rule-breakers, a large number of complaints were found to be invalid, aimed at individuals who had reasonable exemptions or were already finished their self-isolation period.

Others were lodged against individuals who had never travelled, or had merely moved between N.W.T. communities. In many cases, it didn't spare them calls and visits from investigators.

In cases where complaints were legitimate, officials often simply explained the rules again, a result of the emphasis on public education in guidelines given to public health officers.

Where repeat violators were openly disregarding the rules, however, those same officials often did little to stop them.

The local gas station in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., was the subject of one complaint. When ProtectNWT staff thought the manager wouldn't send a sick worker home, they could only forward the complaint to the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission. (David Adamec/Wikipedia)

In one example, a new mother visited routinely with others in Ndilo and Dettah despite recently returning from medical travel in Edmonton. After three complaints, local leadership was on the phone with officials asking why she was still being allowed to travel freely throughout the community.

In response, workers issued yet another warning.

In another instance, a worker at the Behchokǫ̀ gas bar who was "constantly coughing" was deemed fit to work by the manager. When a health officer spoke to the manager, they were "not satisfied [they] will effectively resolve [the] concern" — but the most they could do was forward the complaint to the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission (WSCC).

"Will there be a response from WSCC on matters like this?" the health officer wrote. The complaint was marked closed.

ProtectNWT staff involve RCMP

Several tips came from workers at the territory's isolation centres, who warned of people checking out early or disappearing without a trace. Tracking them down sometimes occupied the rest of the traveller's isolation period.

Other tips show the sometimes heavy cost of isolation for residents, with some breaking quarantine to check on people normally in their care, or even, in one case, being hospitalized for alcohol withdrawal while staying at a centre.

Health officials themselves were sometimes over-exuberant in policing public health orders, occasionally overstepping their authority or providing bad advice.

A worker at Chateau Nova hotel in Yellowknife drops off food to guests who were self-isolating. The reports detail how travellers broke quarantine on multiple occasions. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Staff in the Beaufort Delta warned residents of a "ban on mass/social gatherings" when it was still only a recommendation from the chief public health officer. One ProtectNWT employee even told someone if they saw their sister, who was under suspicion for recently travelling, they "must" report her and "provide all the details."

Twice before April 11, when a public health order actually banned indoor gatherings, health officials called RCMP to conduct searches of sites where gatherings had been alleged to have taken place, including an isolation centre in Inuvik. In both cases, "no signs of gathering were present."

By April 11, RCMP were "pretty touchy over the notion of helping with enforcement," according to an internal email from Mike Westwick, head of COVID-19 communications at the time.

Public health order boosts complaints

When Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola made her April 11 order banning all indoor gatherings (and outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people), it was among the strictest in the country at the time, despite there being just a few active cases in the territory.

Overnight, the tone of calls changed, ProtectNWT records show. Nearly every tip was now about a party, card game, or other now-illegal gathering, and many more of them were anonymous.

Serious crimes were now being reported to the hotline, as well. Suspected drug use, family violence, and elder and child abuse feature heavily in reports from virtually every community. ProtectNWT records health officers mostly forwarding these reports to other agencies.

A public health order banning most gatherings supercharged complaints to the anonymous tip line. (Katie Toth/CBC)

A number of people in the reports demonstrated a general disregard for the public health measures. One person was accused of "sneaking" into the territory with a truck driver; another group of socializing in vehicles and bragging on social media about "getting away with breaking the law."

Bootlegging complaints skyrocketed, with concerns about "a great deal of alcohol" entering multiple communities. The ATM in Colville Lake reportedly even ran out of cash when one bootlegger came into town.

"Caller believes RCMP will not do anything," the report from Colville Lake reads. "I encouraged her to continue to report concerns … to the RCMP."

Health workers refer illegal gatherings to police

Reports show residents across the territory voicing frustration with responses to illegal gatherings from ProtectNWT, and from outside agencies they frequently enlisted for help.

More than one record shows callers hanging up on ProtectNWT workers in anger when they said they could not immediately respond to a party next door. Multiple complaints were lodged about the same residences with increasing frustration as illegal gatherings continued unaddressed.

Multi-day parties at Yellowknife apartments, like Northview's Sunridge Place, were often referred to landlords or RCMP to deal with. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Earlier in the pandemic, complaints about parties were forwarded to landlords, who had limited authority to act. Once gatherings were criminalized, the same reports went to the RCMP, which reports suggest often failed to respond. 

"RCMP pass it on to [the COVID-19] line saying they're allowed to have visitors, they're allowed to have [a] party??!!" one person wrote while lodging a complaint about illegal parties in four different Northview buildings in Yellowknife. "Housing passes it on to RCMP, [and] Northview is left to deal with it basically on their own.

"While it may be their security's job, this Protect[NWT] line needs to do their job."

Shouting matches and suspicion

Among these accounts of more serious infractions, residents continued to report the harmless activities of their neighbours. Cars and trucks with out-of-territory license plates were reported, as was an Easter mass in Inuvik, where parishioners met on an ice road and stayed inside their vehicles.

Shouting matches erupted in stores in Tsiigehtchic and Hay River as people accused each other of spreading the disease. A corner store was reported as "dangerous" for asking customers to use adjacent tills, and a van in Yellowknife drew one man's ire for carrying seven passengers.

"If I am not allowed to do this, nobody should be," the complainant wrote.

Places where people who experience homeless congregated, like Yellowknife's only sobering and day shelter, pictured here, were frequently the subjects of reports. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Any group, from a quartet of young smokers to a bench shared by three people, was liable to generate a report — even though outdoor gatherings of under 10 people were still allowed.

Many complainants wondered why police and bylaw were not more involved in public health enforcement, especially regarding gatherings in areas frequented by people who are homeless.

One person even suggested police roam Fort Smith with a two-metre pole "showing clearly" what appropriate distancing looks like to those gathering on the street.

It's important to remember that while, theoretically, any one of the people being reported could have carried COVID-19, none apparently did. The territory recorded just a handful of disconnected cases during this time, all related to travel, and by the end of April, it had successfully eradicated the disease.

Conrad Baetz, the Northwest Territories' former deputy chief public health officer, speaks to a public health officer at a roadside photo op in April 2020. Many complainants asked why RCMP and local bylaw were not more actively policing residents for public health violations. (Katie Toth/CBC)

It is easy, in retrospect, to say that residents' concern as expressed in these often panicked reports was misdirected or overblown.

But it is also worth noting that, at the time, health authorities were clear about just how little was known about COVID-19. Few known treatments were available. A vaccine seemed impossibly far off. And little was understood about how infectious it could be, for how long, or how lethal it was to those who contracted it.

How CBC obtained ProtectNWT records

These details are the result of a public documents request CBC made in the spring of last year.

Laws require the N.W.T. government to provide redacted documents within 30 days, but the Department of Health and Social Services argued it could not prepare the documents in time, as "diverting those essential resources … would compromise public health and safety."

Despite the N.W.T. privacy commissioner ruling that excuse invalid, the department never gave timelines for providing the documents, and disregarded multiple emailed follow-ups. Other access to information requests were similarly delayed.

That did not change even when the government created a multi-million-dollar COVID-19 coordinating secretariat, which was intended partly to improve the department's poor response to media requests.

In fact, though Sonya Saunders, the secretariat's director, said the requests were in the "final review stages" in October, it was still a further 60 days — double the time provided for in law — before they were partially fulfilled.

In a review of the government's actions last June, the privacy commissioner acknowledged that her options to force the government's hand were "extremely limited and quite ineffectual."

Today, a year after the pandemic was declared, the government still routinely bypasses timelines set out by law. A revamped access to information and protection of privacy (ATIPP) act, approved by MLAs nearly two years ago, is still not in effect.

A Justice Department spokesperson said the "majority" of those changes would be implemented by this summer. A new centralized ATIPP department has been handling all requests from March 1 of this year.