N.W.T. gov't isn't saying who's on its new COVID-19 'enforcement task force'
Task force was created by chief public health officer April 8
Spokespeople for the N.W.T. government wouldn't say for certain who has the power to enforce the chief public health officer's orders from day to day, though officers have been appointed to an "enforcement task force" in six regional centres already.
The territory's chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, announced the creation of the task force on April 8 as part of an effort to strengthen enforcement of orders criminalizing certain gatherings and requiring mandatory self-isolation for travellers.
At a press conference on April 8, Kandola said the intent of the task force was to increase the number of "boots on the ground" in small communities.
In an emailed response to questions from CBC, a spokesperson for the territorial government said "the officers on the team are necessarily a bit fluid" due to operational requirements, but confirmed officers had already been appointed in Inuvik, Norman Wells, Fort Simpson, Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith to investigate complaints of rule-breakers.
The March 31 edition of the Northwest Territories Gazette, which records government appointments and changes to laws, lists more than 50 names of people appointed as public health officers, mostly in Yellowknife. Many of these appointments predate Kandola's April 8 announcement by weeks or months, and it's not immediately clear if they are part of the task force.
Sean Whelly, mayor of Fort Simpson, said he was made aware of two wildlife officers who had been redesignated to the task force.
"They are regional," said Whelly. "They're stationed here, so they could be used for anywhere in the surrounding communities."
Patrick Simon, mayor of Fort Resolution — where a case of COVID-19 was identified April 2 — said "no one has identified themselves so far" in his community. Local officers with the Department of Lands are not likely to fill the role, he said.
"We still don't know who this person is going to be."
But Simon said mayors were told in a weekly conference call that these officers will have "a lot of leeway" as to how to enforce public health orders.
"We were told that they have a lot of discretion to either educate, warn, fine, or jail, given the circumstances," he said.
Authority of new officers still unclear
That's a worry for Yellowknife MLA Kevin O'Reilly, who said he's been trying to get clarification on the enforcement task force since shortly after it was announced.
"It's not clear to me … whether they have the ability or authority to do things like search and seizure, detain individuals, that kind of thing, or whether they need to do those things in collaboration with RCMP," he said.
O'Reilly said, so far during the pandemic, the territory has been slow to standardize the rules and procedures for front-line personnel enforcing public health orders.
Forms used to collect information on travellers' self-isolation plans weren't standardized until April 9, for example — nearly three weeks after an order made them mandatory.
"I have a lot of questions about how all this is working," he said.
'We need to be clear on all the rules'
Both Simon and Whelly questioned the need for heavy-handed enforcement, though they welcomed the notion of more support in the event that complaints need to be investigated.
"I don't want to see the town either going into a 1984 situation, where everyone's reporting on their neighbours," said Whelly, but "I think people would feel better knowing that there is at least someone in place."
"I think for us, first of all, we need to be clear on all the rules," said Simon. "We need to advertise it so that people are fully aware."
That includes providing information in Indigenous languages and offline, said Simon — something he's taken on himself, and sought funding from the territorial government for.
"After we educate, the enforcement part comes," he said. "I just want to ensure that when the enforcement is needed, it's used in the proper way, or they're going to be chasing down people's feuds."
"If I don't like you, I could be calling on you every day."
Former Yellowknife director named as deputy
The territorial government's response to CBC also identified two new deputy chief public health officers: Adrian Barrieau, formerly with the Justice Department, and Dennis Marchiori, a former public safety director for the City of Yellowknife who left his position amid an inquiry into workplace misconduct.
The territory had previously only named Conrad Baetz as deputy chief public health officer. The three join chief environmental health officer Peter Workman and chief public health officer Kandola at the head of the task force.