Yukon leaders support harsher penalties for couple who flew to territory for vaccines
'Even if the fine was $50,000, it's not enough,' says official with First Nation
Some Yukon leaders are expressing support for White River First Nation as it calls for harsher punishment of a couple accused of sneaking into Beaver Creek, Yukon, last week to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Janet Vander Meer, the First Nation's COVID-19 interagency team volunteer lead, told CBC Tuesday that one word kept coming to mind when she thought about the allegations — outrage.
"I really can't seem to find another word for it," she said.
Husband and wife Rod and Ekaterina Baker are facing charges under Yukon's Civil Emergency Measures Act (CEMA) after allegedly ignoring self-isolation rules in Whitehorse, chartering a plane to Beaver Creek and posing as new employees at a local motel in order to access the mobile vaccination clinic in the community on Jan. 21.
Rod Baker, at the time, was the president and CEO of the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which owns more than 20 casinos nationwide, while Ekaterina Baker is an actress.
They each received a ticket with two counts each — failing to self-isolate, and failing to adhere to a declaration. The maximum penalty under CEMA is a $500 fine plus $75 victim surcharge per count, six months in jail, or both. The Bakers are currently facing a fine totalling $2,300 and have the option of taking the charges to trial.
'Strong message of deterrence' needed
"We feel as the First Nation that there needs to be some prison time," Vander Meer said. "There needs to be an actual sentence against this, not simply a fine — even if the fine was $50,000, it's not enough."
She cited the "real risk of exposure to our community" and the need to send a "strong message of deterrence" to ensure something similar doesn't happen again.
"I had my mom in that same room as these people and she's [in] palliative [care]," Vander Meer said.
"When we found out what happened, the community very much went into a panic mode, as they should, because we were getting ready for maybe a lockdown for two weeks, a community lockdown.
"The community was terrified they were put in a situation of risk, and that's not acceptable just because of privilege and entitlement," she added.
In a statement released Monday, White River First Nation said it would "not be deterred in holding those responsible for this travesty responsible."
AFN regional chief 'shocked' but 'not surprised'
Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek echoed the call for punishment that's more than just a fine.
In a written statement on Tuesday, Adamek said she was "shocked and angry, but not surprised" at what happened and described it as a "blatant display of disrespect and an exemplification of true privilege and entitlement."
"It's not enough that [Rod] Baker resigned," she said in the statement. "Baker and the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation have a moral debt to White River First Nation that needs to be repaid. Any type of reparations should be determined for and by the community."
MLA 'pissed off' after hearing news
Yukon Party MLA Wade Istchenko, whose Kluane riding includes Beaver Creek, told CBC in an interview that he was "pissed off" when he first heard the news and said that CEMA was "in need of a refresh."
"Five hundred dollars isn't enough," he said of the maximum penalty available under the current law. "I don't have a magic number for what is, but what the couple did is a lot worse than a $500 fine."
Yukon NDP Leader Kate White called the Bakers' alleged actions as "privilege in action" and agreed that CEMA needed a review, saying that the "court of public opinion" was likely having a greater impact on the Bakers than their fine.
"Something needs to be broadcast to tell others that's not acceptable," she said, although she declined to comment on what she thought a suitable penalty might look like.
Ross River Dena Council deputy chief Robby Dick told CBC that he "feels" for White River First Nation and Beaver Creek, living in a small Yukon community himself.
"I understand their frustration… We're still living in the pandemic here and COVID-19 is real and we're trying to reduce the spread of this virus. They're not only putting elders at risk, but the community as well," he said.
"I can really hear some of the elders [in Ross River] — If I were to talk to them about this, they would say … [the Bakers] should probably receive a bigger repercussion of what they did."
Charter plane company 'duped,' president says
Meanwhile, the president of charter plane company Tintina Air told CBC Wednesday that the company had been "duped" and "misled" into flying the Bakers the Beaver Creek.
"These individuals lied when they landed in Whitehorse, they lied about doing isolation, they lied to the check-in people up in Beaver Creek, they lied to the nurses, they lied to the people to try and get them a ride back to the airport. Do you think they told the charter operator the truth?" Dave Sharp said.
"Do you think we would put our pilot in a small airplane with people ... when they haven't even isolated? Obviously not."
Sharp declined to give further details other than, on the pilot's end, the flight was "pretty straight-forward" and the couple didn't say much and kept their masks on.
"Everybody obviously wants a bit of salacious stuff about, you know, 'They were like Marie Antoinette and entitled' and the rest of it, but no, I mean, honestly, it was just two people (that) walked straight up to the airplane, climbed on and off, we waited like we always do ... and then we came back (to Whitehorse)," he said.
"As far as we were aware, they had a mission to do ... (and) what we thought they were doing was not what they were actually doing."
With files from Leonard Linklater and Claudiane Samson