Divided at the border, Yukon and N.W.T. residents wait for restrictions to be lifted

With holidays around the corner, residents along the Yukon-N.W.T. border are hoping they will soon be in a bubble that will allow families to reunite.

With holidays around the corner, residents are hoping to be in a bubble soon

Amber Aleekuk with baby Stella-Jean and children Maverick and Peter Jay. Aleekuk says the border restrictions are having a financial impact on families in the Beaufort Delta who can no longer travel south to shop. (Submitted by Amber Aleekuk)

When Amber Aleekuk had a new baby girl this March, she didn't think she'd have to do it alone.

The Inuvialuit woman has been living in Whitehorse for over three years, but most of her family lives in Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T.

"I had been expecting family to come down so it was sort of lonely," said Aleekuk.

Aleekuk is a single mom with three kids. She said family members want to come and visit but border restrictions are preventing her or her family from travelling.

"I wish they would open the borders up … so we can see our loved ones and families."

She said they were originally hoping to reconnect for Thanksgiving but that's not looking likely now. 

I have young children that miss their grandma.​​​​​​- Dayna Lennie, parent

Yukon has opened its bubble up to the N.W.T and Nunavut; however, the other two territories exclude Yukon from their bubbles since British Columbia is in Yukon's travel bubble.

For Beaufort Delta residents, the Yukon is a popular destination — not only to see family, but to get services that aren't always available in smaller communities, like haircuts, car repairs and seeing a dentist. But since the COVID-19 border policies went into place, anyone who travels to the Yukon from the N.W.T. is required to self-isolate for 14 days when they come back.

"The N.W.T. in general, it's just expensive up there. So a majority of the population like to drive down to Whitehorse and shop," said Aleekuk.

"I think it's really impacting people's finances."

Dayna Lennie with husband Fred Chambers-Piper and daughters Kelite Chambers and Ophelia Chambers. Lennie hopes the government will reassess border restrictions soon. (Brooke Martel)

Longing for family connection

Dayna Lennie is in a similar situation. She usually reconnects with family during the holidays.

"I'm still hopeful that things will change by Christmas, but at this rate, it doesn't seem like it will happen."

The Inuvialuit nurse and mother of two said she was excited when she first heard the Yukon was opening up to the Northwest Territories.

"My co-workers can probably recall me jumping up and down happy, and when it wasn't reciprocated to us …It broke my heart a little bit," said Lennie.

It does come at a considerable cost both in terms of time, money, emotions for many individuals and families.- Ken Smith, Gwich'in Tribal Council

She has been living in Whitehorse for seven years, and normally goes home to Inuvik every spring.

Lennie wishes she could have gone home to go out on the land and do traditional activities — but more than anything, she misses her family.

"I have young children that miss their grandma. They miss their cousins," said Lennie. "It's just the family connection that I'm longing for ... being back in my hometown and seeing friends as well."

An officer conducts a roadside check just outside of Enterprise, N.W.T., on Highway 1. The border between the N.W.T. and Yukon remains closed despite a bubble allowing travel between Nunavut and the N.W.T. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Pushing for exemptions

Both Aleekuk and Lennie are hoping that government officials will take into consideration the connection that the Yukon has with their home region of the Beaufort Delta in the N.W.T.

"This is a border that is frequently crossed for a lot of families, a lot of First Nation people, and I feel like it's about time it's opened," said Lennie.

"I feel like the N.W.T. is ready to handle a little bit of COVID[-19] risk. There's been enough time for policies and for procedures to be in place."

Ken Smith, newly elected grand chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, said he is hoping the government will reassess the self-isolation requirements considering there have been no new cases of COVID-19 in months.

"It has particularly impacted those outside of the N.W.T. from attending family funerals or seeing loved ones who may be battling illness or in long-term care,"said Smith.

Although he hasn't had these discussions with the territorial government yet, Smith said he plans to.

"We certainly understand the rationale behind some of the restrictions, however it does come at a considerable cost both in terms of time, money, emotions for many individuals and families."