N.W.T.'s new enforcement task force introduces itself

The deputy chief public health officer says his team has not yet fined anyone or brought any cases to the courts.

No fines or court cases yet, says deputy chief public health officer

Environmental health officer Chloe LeTourneau is on the task force enforcing COVID-19-related rules. (Katie Toth/CBC)

As truck after truck pulls over on a Yellowknife road, Chloe LeTourneau brings the same upbeat voice to each of them — powering through an afternoon filled with sleet and snow so she can tell locals about the Northwest Territories' new COVID-19 "compliance and enforcement task force."

She and other members of the task force weren't out to catch people breaking the rules or to issue tickets. Instead, the traffic stop was a way for these public health officers to educate the community and introduce themselves.

Responding to the novel coronavirus has been "a dynamic situation ... constantly evolving," she said to CBC on Saturday at a traffic stop.  

Public health officers stop a pickup truck on 48th Street in Yellowknife to remind them about the new public health orders, including new rules about physical distancing. (Katie Toth/CBC)

The task force was announced on April 8 by chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola, who said that it would enforce the new legally-binding public health rules she has put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  

The rules include a ban on indoor gatherings and visitors, and rules for visiting outdoors that require people to keep two metres apart at all times. They also include rules for essential businesses to operate safely. 

Conrad Baetz, deputy chief public health officer and enforcement lead, said there are 28 people on his task force so far, along with support staff.

He said this enforcement group is separate from another group of territorial officials that are enforcing border restrictions.

Baetz said the territorial government started creating the task force about two weeks ago.  He said everyone in the enforcement and compliance task force had a previous job that involved enforcing rules — including forest officers, wildlife officers, and people from the Department of Lands.

His team also includes health inspectors like LeTourneau, who were already providing advice to people and following up on complaints related to compliance on these public health orders before the task force was announced.

"Compliance and enforcement ... the principles are the same," he said. "The difference here is the importance ... this is a public health emergency. It's far more critical we do everything we can to ensure compliance in this particular scenario."

As of April 16, details of who would be on the task force had remained scant. 

In an emailed response to questions from CBC at that time, a spokesperson for the territorial government had 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.

If public health officers believe someone has broken an order, they will explain the rules to the person or give a warning, according to a government webpage on how public health enforcement works. If that doesn't do the trick, the officers can issue tickets of up to $1,500.

Or, they can issue a court summons, according to the site. A judge would then decide in court if the person was guilty — and if the person was convicted of breaking a public health order, the person could wind up with a fine of up to $10,000 from the judge. 

A spokesperson for the territorial government said on Saturday the officers will work with RCMP and bylaw officers who have the authority to stop traffic — and may work with police in high-risk situations as well. The website explains in "extreme circumstances," the officers can also make arrests.

So far, the task force has responded to several complaints, but has not fined anyone or brought cases to the courts said Baetz.

Instead, they've "had a variety of different situations where we've gone from stern talkings to written warnings," Baetz said. 

Baetz said that most people who the task force stopped on Saturday were happy the team was there. "For the lack of human contact we've been able to have, there's a bit of human contact here," he said. "Obviously we're keeping our proper distance ... but it's somebody you're able to speak to with questions."

Conrad Baetz (right), the Northwest Territories' new deputy chief public health officer, speaks to a public health officer on the territory's compliance and enforcement tax force. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Ames Rae was one of the people randomly pulled over by RCMP and municipal bylaw officers. Rae said he's glad to see the officers reaching out.

"It's nice that they're standing out here in the snow telling people all the information," said Rae. "I think it's probably good for them to crack down on it a little bit ... [COVID-19] is causing a lot of problems."