N.W.T. health officials quietly drop their case against a TV star they publicly shamed

Months after publicly shaming a man for breaking pandemic-related border restrictions, N.W.T. health officials quietly dropped efforts to lay charges against him.

Chief Public Health Officer condemned 'Pike' Mike Harrison for violating a public health order in March 2020

Mike Harrison's photo from the Ice Lake Rebels series on the Discovery Channel. The former reality TV star was publicly shamed for violating a public health order in March 2020, but health officials later determined they were unable to make the case for charges against him. (Discovery Channel)

Months after publicly shaming a man for breaking pandemic-related border restrictions, N.W.T. health officials quietly dropped efforts to lay charges against him.

"Pike" Mike Harrison, a homesteader and former reality TV star, was publicly chastised by Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola in March 2020 after breaching newly implemented COVID-19 border restrictions and discussing his motivations for doing so with a reporter for an N.W.T. newspaper.

The case was a singular moment where health officials targeted an individual for criticism, and Harrison's story was the subject of intense interest from local media.

But months after an internal investigation recommended there was "sufficient evidence" to charge Harrison with a crime, health officials quietly closed his case without ever communicating to Harrison that no criminal charges would be laid.

When asked at a Thursday news conference why no charges were laid, Kandola evaded the question.

"I can't speak specifically about the investigation for specific individuals," she said, "but it was investigated, and a decision was made."

Harrison's journey

Health officials first confirmed they would not be charging Harrison in November 2020, in response to questions from the Francophone newspaper L'Aquilon.

Harrison, who had been travelling in British Columbia in March 2020, initially planned to return to the territory via Highway 7, which connects the community of Fort Liard, N.W.T., to the province. But when he arrived in Fort Nelson, B.C., he discovered the road had been closed one day earlier, on March 23, by a public health order.

Records obtained by CBC through an access to information request detail Harrsion's frantic attempt, in the days that followed, to obtain an exemption that would allow him to isolate at his remote homestead some 122 kilometres from Fort Liard.

"He spent the whole day in an isolated room in Fort Nelson, called us at least three times, called his MLA … He felt so abandoned," reads one record of a call Harrison placed to the territory's public health hotline.

Later records suggest Harrison spoke to as many as eight different call centre workers over the course of several days before entering the territory.

In his interview with L'Aquilon, Harrison asserted that he received "contradictory and confused" information from those workers, and left his conversations convinced he would be able to receive an exemption at the border.

At the time, call centre workers were working with limited information about the new public health orders. But internal records suggest workers uniformly advised Harrison to submit a self-isolation plan to request an exemption, something he did not do until more than two weeks after illegally entering the territory. (Harrison counters that no one was able to file a self-isolation plan over the phone until then, and that the form offered no place to request exemptions).

Since March 23, 2020, the N.W.T.'s border with British Columbia has been closed to non-essential traffic. (Ryan Dickie/Winter Hawk Studios)

Records also show Harrison suggested multiple times to public health officials that he would go to the media in an attempt to draw attention to what he saw as an unreasonable request — that he drive 22 hours through two provinces with escalating COVID-19 numbers in order to enter the N.W.T. at its one open border crossing with Alberta.

"[Harrison] was annoyed about the 'extra risk' the government was putting [him] in," another call record reads.

But Harrison's complaints fell on deaf ears. Records show workers invariably told Harrison to follow ordinary processes, file a self-isolation plan and hope for the best.

Eventually, Harrison did go to the media, describing his journey — and his intention to head straight to his homestead to self-isolate — to a reporter with NNSL.

Today, Harrison says he had assumed that conversation was off the record, and that the reporter "cherry-picked the words to contrive a message."

NNSL said they stand by their original reporting and declined further comment.

CPHO pushes for charges

Harrison's decision to highlight his predicament in the press — and voice his disdain for the public health order — attracted the ire of Dr. Kandola and her communications staff.

"He's openly scoffing [at] the order and admitting it in the newspaper," wrote Kandola's then-communications director Mike Westwick in an email to Kandola.

"I agree," Kandola responded. "It's people like this that put our communities at risk. Blatant disregard. Can you whip up a rebuttal we can send to NNSL?"

That rebuttal, a news release that condemned Harrison by name for "embolden[ing] others to ignore our medical direction," was carried widely by media, including CBC, where a story about it garnered more than 130,000 views.

The release ended with a statement that health officials would investigate with a view to pressing charges. Behind the scenes, Kandola pushed for immediate punitive action.

N.W.T's Chief Public Health Officer Kami Kandola, pictured in May 2020. Harrison says Kandola's statement did 'tremendous harm' to his well-being. (Walter Strong/CBC)

"We need something more than a court date 12-18 months out," Kandola wrote in an email on April 2, 2020. "In the public eye, it will be important we lay charges."

But almost immediately, officials recognized that prosecuting Harrison would be extremely difficult, largely due to the inadequacy of their own record-keeping.

"We have not received the entry log from [the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs]," wrote Peter Workman, the chief environmental health officer, when Kandola pressed for details on the investigation. "We don't have a way to confirm who hasn't done isolation plans and who has slipped through without a list to compare. I/we have no contact information for [him]."

Lawyers advised that, at that time, the law did not allow for issuing summary offence tickets to rule-breakers, meaning the territory would have to take it to court, which the pandemic had suspended for the foreseeable future.

"We are looking to … create ticketable offences, but that won't be retroactive," Workman wrote, "[and] I don't think you have grounds to do an apprehension."

"Sorry there is not better news," he wrote.

No contact

In another email sent April 2, 2020, Workman said that he would contact Harrison to "discuss his actions" the following day.

That call never took place. A spokesperson for Kandola confirmed that despite "several attempts," officials never made contact with Harrison.

Instead, records show that, on April 3, 2020, Workman initiated a review of call centre workers' previous interactions with Harrison, documenting their "independent recollection" of each call.

While Workman completed his investigation, Harrison finished his self-isolation period at his homestead, outside of cell phone reception and with no internet connection. Four days later, he resumed his calls to ProtectNWT, attempting to get clarity on his situation.

On April 17, 2020, he reached a ninth call centre worker, and described the impact of Kandola's March 27, 2020, statement.

An N.W.T. transportation officer stops vehicles coming in and out of Enterprise, N.W.T, to let them know of a travel ban for non-residents into the territory in April 2020. Health officials found their record keeping was too poor to press charges against Harrison for violating the travel ban. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

"He doesn't think there is another Canadian who has been shamed in the press like him," the worker recorded. Coverage of the statement did "tremendous harm," he told them.

"He was looked at like the plague in Fort Simpson," she wrote. "Apparently there have been death threats against him."

More than two weeks later, Harrison was still asking call centre workers if he was going to be fined, or even arrested. Workers replied that they were "unable to respond" to his questions, and requested he email a generic inbox so his concerns could be forwarded to supervisors.

"The conversation was the correct one to have," Conrad Baetz, then head of enforcement, wrote in response to one worker's forwarded record of a call. No follow-up was recorded.

Investigation recommends charges

By May 6, 2020, Workman's investigation had concluded, and recommended that the territory pursue charges under the Public Health Act, saying "sufficient evidence" existed for a charge.

But the records indicate no further response to the report. A spokesperson for Kandola would not explain why the recommendation was not acted upon.

Harrison tried once more to get clarity on his situation, in June, when he placed a call to David Maguire, a spokesperson for the health authority.

"He has concerns about the length of time this is taking and lack of contact on the issue," Maguire wrote to Westwick, Kandola's spokesperson, after the call. "Someone should call … and provide whatever answers possible."

"Deal with it as appropriate and let me know what you're doing," Westwick replied. "It's likely he's going to go to the media at some point soon."

No call was ever made.

A failed investigation

Darren Campbell, a spokesperson for Kandola, confirmed to CBC the investigation was formally closed in August 2020. 

"It was decided that given the incomplete nature of the investigation, proceeding with charges against Mr. Harrison would not be in the public interest," Campbell wrote in an email. 

A list of talking points written by Workman in September 2020 offers more detail. Workman writes that the "risk of failed prosecution was too large" due to "difficulties in obtaining evidence" and "statements [which] introduce doubt."

"[A] challenge would have occurred, and successful prosecution was unlikely," he wrote.

The outside of a building with the sign 'Yellowknife courthouse.'
The courthouse in Yellowknife. Though an internal investigation recommended charges against Harrison, health officials later decided they had little chance of succeeding in court. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Despite his repeated attempts to get clarity, health officials never communicated this information to Harrison or to the media, who disseminated Kandola's March 28, 2020, condemnation. But Campbell says they had no obligation to do so.

"It is not [the territorial government's] practice to inform individuals that they are being investigated or that an investigation has been concluded, nor is there a legal obligation to do so," Campbell wrote.

"We responded to questions about the situation when we were asked."

When first faced with questions about Harrison's case from L'Aquilon in November, Kandola, through Westwick, admitted no error in condemning Harrison before the investigation was complete.

"The statement was a response to a media story which Mr. Harrison chose to generate and be quoted in," her statement reads. "It was necessary to respond directly … to ensure the public understood the importance of taking the right steps, and the possibility of endangering others by not complying."

Harrison has said repeatedly since April 2020 that he has faced abuse and stigma that he attributes to the chief public health officer's response to his decision not to isolate in Hay River, N.W.T. But while Kandola said she rejects "vigilantism," her response to L'Aquilon was not sympathetic.

"If an individual wishes to engage in media, they should expect a response," she said.

How CBC obtained these records

CBC obtained emails and records of ProtectNWT calls related to Kandola's March 28, 2020, statement via an access to information request made in April 2020.

Despite laws that require the territorial government to respond to these requests within 30 days, this request and others like it were delayed for more than nine months.

A ruling by the privacy commissioner deeming the delay unreasonable was ignored.

Response times have not improved since the creation of the territory's multi-million-dollar COVID-19 coordinating secretariat, which was intended partly to improve the department's poor response to media requests.

A revamped access to information and protection of privacy (ATIPP) act, approved by MLAs nearly two years ago, is still not in effect. The Justice Department says the "majority" of those changes will be implemented by this summer. A centralized ATIPP department now handles all requests.

With files from Batiste Foisy/L'Aquilon