North

Are tourists welcome in the N.W.T.? Premier says yes, health minister says no

After months of preaching the importance of a secure border, competing statements from the Northwest Territories' premier, her health minister, and the government's own website make it unclear to what extent visitors from across Canada are welcome in the territory. 

Caroline Cochrane says tourists from the South can visit if they isolate, contradicting months of messaging

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane appeared to shift a major change in the territory's policy toward non-essential travellers. It contradicts months of messaging, notices posted online, and her own health minister. (Walter Strong/CBC)

After months of preaching the importance of a secure border, competing statements from the Northwest Territories' premier, her health minister, and the government's own website make it unclear to what extent visitors from across Canada are welcome in the territory. 

This follows an interview Premier Caroline Cochrane gave during a CBC News Network special where Cochrane said tourists from across Canada were welcome as long as they followed an isolation plan. 

"Tourism is on the table," she said. "I think that it's important to realize that the North has a lot to offer, it's a beautiful, beautiful country up here." 

"We have more pristine landscape than anywhere in Canada. The North has a lot to offer and we hope that people take advantage and see our beautiful territory," she said.  

"If you are coming from the South, of course you'd have to self-isolate." 

Watch Premier Caroline Cochrane speak about tourists in the Northwest Territories:

 

This shift in messaging from Cochrane may come as a surprise to residents who've heard for months that the border is closed to all but essential workers — and would remain so for the foreseeable future.  

Since the territory declared a public health emergency in response to COVID-19, the border has been essentially closed with few exceptions. Travellers have had to be essential workers, submit isolation plans, and check in with government officials. 

That ban came into effect on March 21, "prohibiting all travel (by air, land, and port) into the Northwest Territories, with limited exceptions."  

Last month, the territory forced a Gwich'in man moving home to Inuvik, N.W.T., and a Métis man exercising a treaty right to hunt near Fort Resolution, N.W.T., to leave the territory as both had travelled from southern Canada. Though the government does not regularly update numbers, more than a dozen people were turned away from the territory in the first two months of the travel ban.

Just four days ago, the territory re-established a checkpoint at the Alberta border with Fort Smith, N.W.T., to prevent travellers from entering the territory.

Throughout the spring, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola repeated her desire to close the borders, saying on April 28: "Ideally we'd close our boundaries to anyone but residents and those essential to our territory, but that isn't possible"

We hope that people take advantage and see our beautiful territory.- N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane

As of Tuesday afternoon, the territory's COVID-19 information website made no mention of allowing tourists. Its FAQ section on visiting the Northwest Territories wrote that the territory is "continuing to prohibit non-resident travel within the N.W.T." 

A press release Tuesday afternoon announced the territory's respective public health emergency and general state of emergency are being extended another two weeks.  

That release also does not mention tourism and notes that COVID-19 entering the territory from another part of Canada remains the greatest threat to public health and safety. 

Conflicting messaging in the Legislative Assembly 

Similarly, Health Minister Diane Thom said in the Legislative Assembly Tuesday that even though border restrictions will soon be eased for students looking to study and people looking to work in the territory, tourists would not be allowed.  

"Leisure travel in the Northwest Territories is still prohibited," she said.

Health and Social Services Minister Diane Thom speaks in the Legislative Assembly. Tuesday she said leisure travel was not allowed. (CBC)
 

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Cochrane sent an email that said characterizing the border as being closed is not completely accurate.

"While we have said the N.W.T.'s borders are closed, it would be more accurate to say that travel within the territory has been restricted," the statement, attributed to Cochrane states. 

Leisure travel in the Northwest Territories is still prohibited.- N.W.T. Health Minister Diane Thom

"While the border isn't closed to Canadian residents, we still require people who are not on essential travel to self-isolate for 14 days in one of four regional centres," Cochrane said in the statement. 

"This is an important measure for ensuring new cases of COVID-19 don't overwhelm our health care system, and will likely discourage people from making non-essential visits to the N.W.T.," she said.  

When questioned in the Legislative Assembly, Cochrane did not give a clear, definitive answer settling the situation. Instead, she said that a new order from the chief public health officer would be coming Thursday and a press release would be issued on Friday. 

CBC has left additional messages looking for further clarification and a definitive answer on tourists from the premier, but they have not yet been returned. 

CBC News has also emailed and phoned a spokesperson for Kandola seeking comment, but has not yet heard back. 

With files from John Last

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