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A Couple Drove 5,000 KM to Yukon to Escape Coronavirus. Locals Were Furious

"We were busy dealing with a life-altering pandemic, and this couple just strolls off the plane like cartoon characters," said First Nations chief Dana Tizya-Tramm.

by Jimmy Thomson
Mar 30 2020, 3:27pm

Old Crow, Yukon. Photo by Matt Jacques

Old Crow, the northernmost community in Yukon, is seething after two uninvited guests showed up in spite of warnings not to come.

At around 10 a.m. on Friday, an Air North flight brought two Quebeckers to the Arctic community.

“We were busy dealing with a life-altering pandemic, and this couple just strolls off the plane like cartoon characters,” said the chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Dana Tizya-Tramm.

The couple told Tizya-Tramm they were trying to escape the pandemic. He said they sold everything they owned, drove the 5,000-plus kilometres from Quebec to Whitehorse, and boarded a plane to Old Crow. VICE was not able to reach the pair for comment.

Chief Tizya-Tramm said the couple "couldn't be older than 35."

Old Crow is a fly-in, self-governing community 80 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, and is home to just 250 people. Like many remote and northern communities, Old Crow has asked people not to come there in order to limit the potential for bringing COVID-19 with them.

The Yukon government, meanwhile, had just declared a state of emergency, and requires any visitors to the territory to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. The couple had apparently not done so.

The couple told Tizya-Tramm they had decided on Old Crow after one of them had a dream pointing them there.

“He literally dreamed this up,” Tizya-Tramm said.

The dream was cut short when the pair was met at the airport by Paul Josie, Old Crow’s emergency management coordinator. Josie has been meeting every plane that arrives to distribute information on the virus, and intercepted the couple as they were getting off the plane.

“They thought they could come to Old Crow and find a job and find a place to live,” Josie said.

The couple was escorted to the local Co-op store, which has two small apartments it rents out to healthcare workers, mechanics, or other visiting staff. The RCMP gave the two visitors strict instructions not to leave, and put them on the next flight out of Old Crow to Whitehorse, on Sunday, without going through the airport, according to Tizya-Tramm. VICE was not able to determine whether they were released upon their arrival in Whitehorse.

Neither the RCMP nor the Yukon government were able to respond to requests for comment before press time.

The room the couple occupied at the Co-op will have to be left vacant for four days before it can be used by anyone else, in case they brought COVID-19 with them from the south.

Quebec has reported a surge in COVID-19 cases in the past week, jumping to 2,840 cases as of March 29. Travel has been restricted to some areas and Montreal has declared a state of emergency.

But Quebec is also much better prepared to handle the virus. Old Crow, with elders making up about a fifth of its population, does not have a doctor. It is also struggling with an ongoing housing crisis, and construction on new buildings has been shut down now due to the virus.

Even if housing had been available, the community was not in its usual welcoming mood, Tizya-Tramm said.

“When you stepped off the plane, you stepped into Vuntut Gwitchin territory. You are now on our land,” he recalled telling the couple. “We control the housing.”

He said the couple had plans to live off the land, but no notion of what that actually entailed in the Arctic.

“Living on the land here is dangerous. It’s not like you wake up in the morning and birds dress you. It’s cold, it’s dangerous; you have to track and hunt animals,” he said. “Our community is not some COVID-19 haven.”

Air North, which operated the flight that brought the couple to the community, says it has a procedure in place to prevent this kind of occurrence.

“We have, in conjunction with the community, put into place procedures where we’re notifying them who’s travelling,” CEO Joe Sparling told VICE. “So obviously it’s working.”

But Tizya-Tramm says he wasn’t informed by the airline—that it was actually Josie who caught the couple at the airport. The couple had booked through a third party, which apparently excluded them from the list that was provided to the local government.

The same day the couple arrived in Old Crow, Tizya-Tramm was issuing an address to Vuntut Gwitchin via YouTube. He was joined by elders’ council representative Roger Kyikavichik, who spoke briefly at the end.

“For decades, our elders have told us that hard times are coming. And that we need to prepare ourselves, prepare our family, and prepare our community,” Kyikavichik said.

“That time has come.”

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