How the N.W.T.'s travel ban impacts a tiny community just below its border

Beverly Tupper didn’t realize border officers were stationed 15 kilometres from her home until her husband was stopped on the way into Fort Smith, N.W.T., to buy groceries.

Residents of Fort Fitzgerald, Alta., population eight, are now asked to show identification every time they cross into the territory. They are then allowed to pass into Fort Smith to buy groceries or any other essentials. 

The border is normally only identified with a small blue sign saying “Alberta” on the right side of the highway. 

“It’s strange,” Tupper said. “It’s a little weird because we are isolated from the rest of Alberta.” 

Fort Fitzgerald lies along the banks of the Slave River, just below the Northwest Territories-Alberta border. It is part of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alta. 

This is how the border between Fort Smith, N.W.T., and Fort Fitzgerald, Alta., is normally marked – with small blue signs along the highway. Under the N.W.T.’s travel ban, officers are now stopping cars on the border and asking for ID. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

The community is accessible from the south via the Fort Chipewyan Winter Road, which Parks Canada closed to traffic last week. 

Dr. Kami Kandola, the Northwest Territories’ chief public health officer, issued a travel ban late last Friday in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

By Saturday morning, transport officers were stationed at the four major entry points into the territory: those near the communities of Fort Smith, Fort Liard, Fort McPherson and Enterprise, N.W.T. They’re there to tell non-N.W.T. residents trying to cross the border to turn around. 

Exemptions made for Fitzgerald residents

The eight Fort Fitsgerald residents have been neighbours for the last twenty years, Tupper said. They would meet every day at Tupper’s house for a morning coffee break — until the coronavirus pandemic. Now, they check in by phone at least once a day. 

“We’re like family out here, you’d say,” Tupper said. 

All of them are currently self-monitoring for their own safety, Tupper said. They’re all seniors. 

Gerry Cheezie, the chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation, which straddles the N.W.T.-Alberta border, said he had a meeting with N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane prior to the travel ban’s announcement last week. The chief talked about how Fort Fitzgerald residents are reliant on Fort Smith for essentials such as groceries and medication. 

Cheezie said people will be able to cross the border for those essential needs, but will be refused if they are coming for social visits. 

“We still realize that we gotta put in protocols so people can take responsibility for their own health and safety,” Cheezie said. 

Fort Fitzgerald resident Francois Paulette has been advocating for a regional emergency response plan for the last five years. (Pat Kane/CBC)

In a statement, the territory’s health department said Fort Fitzgerald residents are “restricted” from entering the N.W.T. except for essential services. Fort Smith residents should avoid crossing the border into Fort Fitzgerald.

The department said Fort Fitzgerald residents are able to use certain N.W.T. airports, including Fort Smith’s airport, in order to fly to other parts of Alberta, but only if they haven’t left Fort Fitzgerald in the last 14 days. 

Fort Fitzgerald resident Francois Paulette has been advocating for a regional emergency response plan for the last five years. He would like to see leadership on both sides of the border take the coronavirus as a learning opportunity. 

“This is just the beginning,” Paulette said. “We are going to be hit harder by something else and we will need to be prepared.” 

Questions about coronavirus testing

Tupper said she would like to know how she, or someone else, in her community could be tested. 

The Fort Smith health centre says on its website that it offers medical services to residents of Fort Fitzgerald.

The N.W.T. health department is recommending anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 to take an online self-assessment or to call a hotline number for one of the four regional hubs. From there, a healthcare provider will offer more guidance on how people can get tested. 

Dr. Kandola said the travel ban will go on until further notice.

The road to one household in Fort Fitzgerald, Alta. The small community lies along the Slave River, just 25 kilometres south of Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Submitted by Beverly Tupper)

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