Chief public health officer (CPHO) Dr. Kami Kandola won’t be using her pandemic emergency authority to intervene in the Yellowknife temporary day shelter debacle, even as the municipality called for her immediate assistance this week.
On Monday, during the City of Yellowknife’s governance and priorities meeting, Mayor Rebecca Alty and some councillors publicly requested that the CPHO to use her power to find a much-needed space for a warm shelter with basic amenities for Yellowknife’s street-involved population now that the snow and cold weather are here.
Alty said the situation is an emergency. She acknowledged that the city has a clause in its zoning bylaw to allow for a temporary structure to be erected on its own land in short order without being subject to a development appeal process, but the mayor said the CPHO can use the Public Health Act to “help speed up this process and make a day shelter available today or tomorrow or whenever the GNWT wants to use it.”
Alty pointed out that according to section 33.1.h of the act the CPHO has the powers “for the purpose of
protecting the public health and preventing, combatting or alleviating the effects of the public health emergency… (to) acquire or use real or personal property, whether private or public.”
Coun. Julian Morse made a similar appeal, calling for politics to be put aside and for the CPHO “to use her powers to intervene immediately in downtown Yellowknife.”
But Kandola said on Wednesday it’s not that simple because her emergency powers strictly pertain to communicable diseases. She also said that public health sacrifices related to Covid-19 and capacity restrictions are “not unique to people struggling with homelessness.”
“CPHO powers are to be used very carefully and are to be used in a real, imminent threat related to COVID-19 transmission,” she told gathered media. “So where the CPHO’s powers will be (used) are if the hospital is at full capacity and there needs to be an alternate building designated, an isolation facility with stand-down beds, because there is no more room in the hospital”
Intervention on her part and in this situation would not be doable, she added.
“CPHO powers are not to be used to deliver social programs,” she said. “It’s very specific to responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Kandola added that strict measures have to be kept in place and that she won’t be making adjustments to capacity restrictions at the day shelter and sobering centre either.
“The risk we have right now in the NWT has never been so high,” she said. “We are unique in that we have been able to maintain (Covid cases) down to 10, but we are asking a huge sacrifice to all communities’ offices – and these are the public health measures that everyone has to follow.”
She said several other organizations are being asked to make similar sacrifices.
“There have been restaurants who have had to cut back their seating capacity to maintain public distancing. Schools are doing half days for the high school students to maintain public distancing,” Kandola cited as examples. “These public health mitigations are not easy for any organization.”
On Thursday afternoon, when asked how she felt about the CPHO’s response, Alty said it was important to ensure that “all stones are left unturned” and that the public is aware that the city is actively looking for solutions.
“What I was hoping to do in flagging that piece of legislation was making sure that the GNWT is considering all options… If the chief public health officer has reviewed it and feels that it’s not in her power then so be it.”
Deadline for feedback
As of Thursday, there were no temporary shelter solutions to accommodate 30-50 people.
Since June, the GNWT Department of Health and Social Services has been leading an effort to find shelter space in the downtown core that can provide warmth and basic amenities throughout the winter, until May 2021.
Dozens of potential locations have been explored by the GNWT and have fallen through for various reasons, including the city-owned Mine Rescue Building, which city council denied in August.
Wednesday was expected to be the deadline for public input to the city on the GNWT’s most recent proposal for a territorially-managed temporary day shelter space in a vacant federal public works building on 44 Street. Council is expected to make a final decision on the matter at next Monday’s regular council meting.
The city is also simultaneously seeking request for proposals until the end of the week for a temporary structure to be constructed on city property as soon as possible. The city was provided a federal grant on Oct. 23 for the purposes of assisting homelessness during the Covid-19.