At least two senior N.W.T. officials traveled south over holidays

The premier of the Northwest Territories urged residents not to travel south or have guests come north over the holidays, but Caroline Cochrane’s government says it is none of your business which cabinet ministers or senior bureaucrats followed that recommendation.

In late November, both Premier Cochrane and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola urged residents to stay at home and to forgo visits from relatives or others from the South over the holidays. They said the sacrifice is necessary to mitigate the expected surge in COVID-19 cases due to holiday travel.

But CBC News has learned that at least two senior officials — the deputy minister of health and the newly-appointed head of the COVID-19 secretariat — travelled south for Christmas.

Deputy Minister Bruce Cooper went to Newfoundland to spend time with his wife and children, who live there, according to Health Minister Julie Green.

The head of the COVID-19 secretariat, associate deputy minister Russell Neudorf, travelled to Kelowna, B.C. with his wife to be with their three university-aged children at a home the family has there.

“I think we decided that was best under the circumstances,” said Neudorf, who was reached at his Yellowknife home, where he is quarantining. Neudorf said there was some medical travel involved in the trip. He said his adult children wanted the family to spend the holidays together and it was decided it was safer for him and his wife to go there than for their three children to come to the N.W.T.

The Northwest Territories has no active cases of COVID-19. Anyone travelling outside the territory must self-isolate for 14 days on their return.

Most MLAs stayed home

CBC surveyed all MLAs about their travel out of the territory since Nov. 1. Ten regular MLAs said they have not left the territory.

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said he made a three-day trip to Edmonton for a mandatory medical appointment. The constituency assistant for Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said Nokleby returned on Saturday from B.C., where she had gone to wrap up the estate of her mother, who died in August.

Speaker Frederick Blake said he has been in the territory since Nov. 1, except for a few caribou hunting trips where he drove five to 10 minutes across the border into Yukon. Blake said each time he had enough gas to get back and did not go into Eagle Plains, the Yukon community closest to the border.

In response to a separate media request, cabinet communications manager Krystal Pidborochynski confirmed to CBC that no member of cabinet had travelled outside of the N.W.T. since the start of the territory’s mandatory leave period, which began Dec. 23.

In an email, the government says one cabinet minister travelled south in November, but would not say who, where they went, or why they travelled there.

Cabinet minister Shane Thompson had previously told CBC he travelled out of the territory that month on a “personal family matter.” He refused to elaborate. It is unclear if that is what the government was referring to in its email.

Cabinet minister Diane Archie said she has not left the territory since Nov. 1.

In a email, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said she also had not left the territory since Nov. 1, but her constituency office immediately followed that up with another withdrawing her statement.

Cochrane and ministers Julie Green, Paulie Chinna and R. J. Simpson did not respond to CBC questions about travel outside the territory.

None of your business

Before confirming them, CBC asked the government about reports that Cooper and Neudorf had travelled south for the holidays. It also asked for interviews with both officials and, if they were not available, with Premier Cochrane.

The government responded with an email highlighting the strict measures that have been taken to contain COVID-19 in the territory.

The way I look at it, the vaccine is just around the corner. We just have to get through the next three months. There are sacrifices that we have to make.– Dr. Kami Kandola

“The GNWT [government of the Northwest Territories] will not be commenting any further on the personal travel of public servants,” the email stated.

“While all residents are encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel, travel outside of the N.W.T. is not restricted. It is recognized that there may be extenuating personal circumstances that lead residents, including public servants, to travel outside of the N.W.T.”

At a press conference last week, the territory’s chief public health officer, Dr. Kami Kandola, said she feels she has a role to play in setting an example of the sacrifice she is asking the public to make.

“I can speak for myself. We typically have my stepson visit us for Christmas and we have not encouraged that this year. I have elderly parents who are in Montreal. I typically visit them. I’ve forgone that, I’ve cancelled many trips,” she said.

“The way I look at it, the vaccine is just around the corner. We just have to get through the next three months. There are sacrifices that we have to make. And as the chief public health officer, I need to be an example of following that advice [against] non-essential travel both in and out [of the territory.]”

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