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Yellowknife city council approves COVID-19 vaccine mandate in 5-4 vote

In a slim vote, councillors approved a mandate that will expand the capacity of city facilities by allowing only those who are vaccinated to enter. The heated debate included speakers from the public and a passioned discussion about the implications of a proof-of-vaccination policy.

A vaccine mandate will allow facilities like the pool to expand capacity from 25 people to 100 people

Yellowknife city council narrowly voted in favour of a vaccine mandate at city facilities Monday. From top left, left to right, Mayor Rebecca Alty, senior administrative officer Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Coun. Rommel Silverio, Coun. Julian Morse, Coun. Steve Payne, Coun. Shauna Morgan, Coun. Stacie Smith, Coun. Niels Konge, Coun. Cynthia Mufandaedza and Coun. Robin Williams. (City of Yellowknife)

People will now have to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 when using a city facility after Yellowknife's city council voted 5-4 to approve a vaccine mandate on Monday night.

A vaccine mandate will allow facilities like the pool to expand capacity from 25 people to 100 people, and will expire when public health orders are lifted. 

Late into Monday evening, council heard from members of the public who felt the vaccinated are shouldering the decisions of the unvaccinated. Those opposed to the mandate say it brings more inequality.

Mayor Rebecca Alty noted that 88 per cent of Yellowknifers 18 and up are partially vaccinated and 85 per cent are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Among those who voted in favour were Alty, Couns. Shauna Morgan, Julian Morse, Cynthia Mufandaedza and Robin Williams. Couns. Stacie Smith, Rommel Silverio, Niels Konge and Steve Payne were opposed.

'The winter is long'

Mufandaedza, in support of the mandate, said the decision has been difficult for councillors who have "searched deep, far, hard."

"The winter is long, it is coming and we need to have a plan," she said. 

If councillors had voted down the mandate, the city would have lost $213,000 in user fees every year, which must be made up for in service reduction or tax increases, said the city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett.

Alty said the city received 300 emails about the policy. 

The heated council meeting also included speakers from the public and an impassioned discussion about the implications of a proof-of-vaccination policy.

Taxpayers paying for 'empty' facilities

Among the members of the public who spoke, Dustin Martin, father to a one-year-old, supported the mandate. He said he will feel more comfortable bringing his child to vaccine-only facilities, especially as a highly transmissible variant spreads.

Yellowknifer Tom McLennan also supported the mandate. He said city council "needs to think of the community as a whole and how to make the best of a bad situation."

"Taxpayers [are] paying for empty facilities," McLennan said. "Exercise and social interaction are fundamental to being human."

The Yellowknife Playgroup Association hosts twice-weekly play sessions at the city’s fieldhouse. With the city voting in favour of a proof-of-vaccine program at its facilities on Monday, the association will be able to have more children at its play sessions. (Submitted by Yellowknife Playgroup Association)

Carol Lockhart, a Yellowknifer of 11 years, did not support the mandate. She said "many of us are tired of lockdowns" but "you have to be careful not to create an 'us versus them' society."

Lockhart said she debated speaking before council because her teenager told her she "would be judged and cancelled for having a dissenting opinion."

Volunteers bearing the brunt

Tim Morton, a father of two and a volunteer board member with the Yellowknife Minor Hockey Association, spoke in favour of the vaccine mandate. 

Morton said the city would be "passing the buck" if it failed to implement a policy.

To play hockey, the league had to implement its own proof-of-vaccination policy, he said, which has "helped us get semi-back-to-normal." Still, only one person is allowed to sit in the bleachers per child.

He said volunteers are more burnt out than ever from "taking the brunt of anger" from a "small minority of people."

Current capacity limits affect children socially, he said, describing how his daughter is about to have a birthday party at the pool and will be expected to exclude six children from her class. 

Coun. Steve Payne opposed the mandate because he said he wasn't willing to risk the mental health of unvaccinated children.

"I don't want to see any kids looking through windows … people need these facilities," said Payne.

'Look at the numbers'

Zabey Nevitt, who spoke as a Yellowknife resident in support of the mandate, says his Grade 12 son has not seen "normality" for most of his high school years, and now, a majority of eligible residents in the city have been vaccinated.

"If your concern is maximizing access, just look at the numbers," said Nevitt, pointing to the large numbers of people who wouldn't get to access facilities if current gathering caps were to remain in place. 

Mike Otto, who spoke as a member of the public, also supported the mandate and said councillors concerned about "freedom and fairness" need to weigh the risk of unvaccinated people interacting with immunocompromised people and those who cannot be vaccinated.

"At this point, the choice that unvaccinated people are making is anti-social … I don't think that we should be accommodating those who choose not to get the vaccine," he said. 

Meanwhile, Ariel Stuart, who also spoke as a member of the public, said the mandate is denying community members "the facilities that their taxpayer dollars directly fund." 

Stuart said there should be clear timelines for lifting the mandate and asked whether council had considered proof of negative COVID-19 tests.Council heard that this practice would be too costly.

Konge apologizes for racist comments

Comparisons to historical oppression also continually surfaced.

During the council meeting, Coun. Niels Konge briefly apologized for his comparison of vaccine mandates to racial segregation of Black people and said his words were not meant to cause harm. Couns. Smith and Mufandaedza both spoke in support of Konge. 

In her presentation against the mandate, Yellowknife resident Cathy Allooloo compared those who support the vaccine to those who stood by in Nazi Germany as the Holocaust got underway. 

Coun. Morse interrupted: "I can't sit here and listen to it. We've got to stop the speech."

Allooloo was allowed to continue after speaking about communist and fascist regimes in relation to the vaccine mandates. 

The chair of the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission has said a proof-of-vaccine requirement at city facilities is not a human rights issue because it does not constitute "unreasonable discrimination" in light of a public health crisis.

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