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


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 in his community 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 were actually quite frightened,” he recounted.

‘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)

The couple ended up at the Old Crow Retail Co-op. The store has two bachelor apartments it rents out, often to doctors or 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, “let alone random people getting off of the plane,” said Tizya-Tramm.

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, in order that they prevent unwanted visitors from coming.

Sparling says the names of the two Quebecers were on the passenger 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.

In a statement, Yukon RCMP said they were tipped off on Saturday by a local emergency management officer (EMO) in Old Crow, about the couple’s arrival. Police say they 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.

It’s not known if the couple is now in Whitehorse or elsewhere in Yukon.

‘Endangered our community’

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.

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

“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. 

“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.

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

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

In their 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 [Public Health and Safety 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.

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.



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