Unmanned border gate causing concerns for Fort Liard leadership

All that separates the Northwest Territories from one of the country's most active provinces for COVID-19 — British Columbia — is an unmanned gate, and Fort Liard's leaders say that's a problem. 

Leadership concerned about bootlegging, people crossing N.W.T.-B.C. border

Since March 21, the N.W.T.'s border with British Columbia has been closed to non-essential traffic. All that guards the crossing are these unmanned gates, 30 minutes drive from the community of Fort Liard. (Ryan Dickie/Winter Hawk Studios)

All that separates the Northwest Territories from one of the country's most active provinces for COVID-19 — British Columbia — is an unmanned gate, 30 minutes drive from the community of Fort Liard.

Leaders in the community say that's a problem. 

"I don't believe people in the community are really taking it as seriously as they should be," said the hamlet's mayor, Hillary Deneron.

The N.W.T. officially closed its borders to non-residents, with some exceptions, on March 21, becoming the first Canadian province or territory to do so. At the time, public safety director Ivan Russell said the government planned to enforce the order with point-of-entry controls at key highways and airports.

Deneron said she's heard concerns that people are bootlegging alcohol at the border, and she wants to see someone placed there to stop people interacting at the border, "because stuff like that can also pass along the virus."

Acho Dene Koe First Nation manager Boyd Clark agreed that the existing border setup "hasn't been a non-problematic situation."

"We've heard the incidences of that happening, where individuals are finding ... means to proceed across the territorial border in both directions," said Clark. "And same thing with products."

A Google Streetview capture of B.C. Highway 77, approaching the border with the N.W.T. near Fort Liard. Residents of Fort Liard regularly travel to Fort Nelson for supplies, according to Acho Dene Koe First Nation manager Boyd Clark. (Terry Cameron/Google)

Clark said that there are keys to open the gate for essential workers and supplies.

The N.W.T. government's Emergency Management Organization said the gate is locked and someone is designated to open it when needed. It also acknowledged that there have been concerns about "non-compliance" at the border.

"We are looking to both verify those concerns and responding appropriately. It is an evolving situation that is being addressed on an ongoing basis," said an emailed statement from the organization Thursday afternoon.

Deneron said that in a discussion last week with the territorial government and other leaders of small communities, she called for a bigger police presence in the 500-person community.

"It seems like once the gate went up, it was kind of like: 'they're off the hook,'" she said. Deneron said since her complaint, she's seen some improvement, but she still wants to see the RCMP doing more roadside checks and community visits. 

In response to a question about Deneron's concerns, RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon wrote in an email that enforcement of border closures is the territorial government's job. She added that if people have concerns about policing in a community they should reach out to their local detachment commander.

Residents adjusting, band manager says

Because Fort Liard has a historic relationship with the B.C. community of Fort Nelson, and the Acho Dene Koe's traditional territory extends through B.C. and Alberta, the enforced border has led to some adjustments, Clark said. 

For example, Fort Nelson has two pharmacies that Fort Liard residents rely on. That makes prescriptions tougher to fill, but Clark said people can go through the health centre in Fort Liard to get their medications.

He added that, traditionally, people often drove to the B.C. town to buy groceries, but the two Fort Liard stores — one of which Deneron owns — have also increased their supplies as demand went up. 

Drive to B.C. stirred up mayor's own border concerns early

Deneron told CBC she welcomed the incoming travel ban when it was announced. (Submitted by Hillary Deneron)

Deneron told CBC she welcomed the incoming travel ban when it was announced. The mayor said she started thinking travel between her community and northern B.C. was a bad idea as early as mid-March. 

That's when she went into Fort Nelson to get her truck serviced.

While there, Deneron saw an unusual number of motor homes and holiday trailers from people in the mainland U.S.

"It was crazy," she said. "You see a lot of people from the lower 48 [states] ... in a mad rush to get up to Alaska, thinking that if they got up to Alaska, they would be safe from this virus." 

Deneron feared that people in Fort Liard could get COVID-19 while in the B.C. town, which is a popular stopping point on the Alaska Highway for travellers.

"We definitely don't have the proper medical equipment ... if someone was to get it here."