Quebec couple fleeing COVID-19 'endangered' Yukon First Nation, chief says

A Quebec couple apparently fearing the spread of COVID-19 travelled across the country to a remote community in northern Yukon — but they were quickly sent packing.

Couple drove, then flew, to remote community only to be quickly sent packing

Old Crow is Yukon's northernmost community, and is accessible only by air. On Friday, a couple from Quebec arrived hoping to find a safe haven from COVID-19. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

A Quebec couple, apparently fearing the spread of COVID-19, travelled thousands of kilometres across the country to find haven in a remote northern Yukon community — only to be sent packing a couple of days later by police.

"They dreamt about it, pointed at a map, jumped in their car, and now they're in the Yukon," said Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon. He spoke to the couple when they arrived on Friday.

"They had no idea where they were going or necessarily what they were doing."

According to Tizya-Tramm, the couple drove from Quebec to Whitehorse, then hopped a plane to Old Crow, Yukon's northernmost community and accessible only by air. Tizya-Tramm said the couple arrived, with their bags, intending to look for work in the community of about 250 people.

They were met at the Old Crow airport by a Vuntut Gwitchin official who discusses protocols and hands out self-isolation documents. The official helped the couple find a place to stay.

Tizya-Tramm said that's when he got in touch with them. 

'They had no idea where they were going or necessarily what they were doing,' said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

"They were actually quite frightened," he recounted.

As of Monday, Yukon has five confirmed cases of COVID-19. The territory declared a state of emergency on Friday.

The couple ended up at the Old Crow Retail Co-op. The store has two bachelor apartments it rents out, often to doctors or other government workers.

Kelli Howie, general manager at Old Crow Retail Co-op, said that the two guests arrived Friday without a prior reservation.

"My anxiety went up a little bit," she said on Monday.

There was no work for the couple in Old Crow, and housing is tight even for locals, said Tizya-Tramm, "let alone random people getting off of the plane."

I understand that they're scared but they scared a lot of people in the community.-Kelli Howie, Old Crow Retail Co-op

According to Joe Sparling, president of Yukon's Air North — which flies to Old Crow — the airline recently began emailing the Vuntut Gwichin First Nation a list of the passengers before each flight, to prevent unwanted visitors.

Sparling says the names of the two Quebecers were on the list for that flight, tipping off local officials of their arrival.

Yukon has not closed its borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but people arriving in the territory are told they must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.

Yukon RCMP said they were tipped off on Saturday by a local emergency management officer (EMO) in Old Crow, about the couple's arrival. A statement from RCMP says police were asked to "assist in ensuring their departure" on Sunday. 

"The extent of our police officers' involvement with the couple was limited to ensuring they, in fact, got on the flight arranged by the EMO," the statement reads.

Yukon RCMP commanding officer Scott Sheppard said the couple "stood out" when they arrived in Old Crow and, after leaving, were met by public health officials in Whitehorse to be assessed.

The matter is in their hands now, he said.

"We have not been specifically tasked with enforcement duties per se," Sheppard told CBC News on Monday.

"Our role and our continued wish is that we will continue to play an educational role."

No local doctor

Howie says the room the couple stayed in at the Old Crow Retail Co-op has been locked and, as a precaution, won't be cleaned until at least four days have passed since it was last occupied.

Tizya-Tramm said the couple told him their journey was inspired by a dream. It could have ended in a nightmare, he said.

"They actually endangered our community and themselves. Our small community does not have the capacity to deal with a very robust outbreak," he said, adding that there is no doctor in the community.

Howie said she's glad the couple weren't allowed to stay.

"I understand that they're scared but they scared a lot of people in the community," she said.

Tizya-Tramm said the First Nation's government has new measures in the works to discourage similar actions. 

They didn't get to experience the hospitality that we're usually known for.- Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Old Crow

"I think we want to take an educational approach first, but if we do have to lay charges, we will. So, at this point in time, I'm pretty sure that the couple is just basically getting a slap on the wrist," Tizya-Tramm said.

"Unfortunately, they didn't get to experience the hospitality that we're usually known for but, really, this is already unprecedented times."

In a statement on Monday, RCMP referred to Yukon's March 18 declaration of a public health emergency, under the Public Health and Safety Act. 

"As police officers, the RCMP can be called upon to assist with enforcement under the [act], as can a number of other regulatory agencies, inspectors or other law enforcement partners."

RCMP say it's up the territorial government to lay any charges under the act.

Yukon's chief medical officer said Monday the couple would not be prosecuted, as they did not contravene any official orders.

Tizya-Tramm says his First Nation government will require written permission before anyone enters its traditional territory. 

It will also require its citizens to post a notice on their front door, listing the number of the people inside, their medical conditions, if there are any elders and pregnant people there, and when any self-isolation starts and ends.

The community has also stockpiled traditional meat, Tizya-Tramm added.

There was no work for the couple in Old Crow, and housing is tight even for locals. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

With files from Nancy Thomson, Steve Silva and Dave Croft