Ollie Williams had a cough. It was March 12 and he was on his way from Scotland back to Yellowknife just as the shutters were coming down on international travel.
Williams’ father had passed away the prior December. He had journeyed back to the United Kingdom to mourn and spend time with family on the Isle of Bute. While he was there, Williams, head of programming and news at Yellowknife’s Cabin Radio, developed a mild fever and sore throat. Struck by illness and grief, he watched every day—like the rest of us—as the world fell apart.
Cases of COVID-19 were skyrocketing in Europe and it was only a matter of time before the pandemic took hold of North America, too. Williams wasn’t sure he should even attempt the flight back to Canada, but the writing was on the wall when it came to border closures and financially he couldn’t afford to be stuck on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Cough or no cough, he had to get back to the North.
So there he was in Calgary boarding the last leg of his return trip home. In the seat in front of him was the premier of the Northwest Territories.
“I was very delicately handed an N95 mask by the cabinet secretary, who basically gave me a look,” recalls Williams. “‘Would you kindly not give the premier of the NWT COVID-19?’”
He didn’t have COVID, it turns out. Not that Williams or anyone else knew it at the time. There was a lot we didn’t know back then.
Those early days of the pandemic feel like a lifetime ago. For over a million people, they were. But the fear that dominated the first few months of this new normal is hard to forget. Spring was a season of panic. Every hour the number of new cases rose across Canada, and new questions demanded answers. Who can I be around? How do I stay safe? When will this end?
In the North, fear of COVID-19 spread farther and faster than the actual virus. The territories were largely spared the healthcare crisis seen in the south. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories had only a handful of isolated cases. Nunavut, until recently, had no infections at all.
In some ways we were lucky. In many others, we were prepared. For that, there isn’t just one person to thank. From journalists to public health officers, translators to ordinary citizens, keeping COVID at bay in the North was, and still is, a team effort. It takes a community to communicate the message.
That’s why in 2020 there is no one person we can crown Northerner of the Year. The honour belongs to everyone whose words and actions helped this part of the country avoid catastrophe. They are the voices in a global pandemic who kept us calm, cool, and most of all connected. We can’t list them all, but we can offer a glimpse of what they came together to accomplish. These are our Northerners of the Year, in a year unlike any other.
A two-week quarantine upon arrival in the territories wasn’t yet mandatory when Williams made it back to Yellowknife, but he isolated himself anyway. Stuck at home, he began broadcasting nightly with a live webcast dubbed Covid Corner. It was a way of condensing the flood of information arriving with every news cycle into something digestible, and a way to offer some reassurance to viewers across the territory that we were all figuring this out together.
“I feel as though it was our responsibility to be on top of everything, on behalf of people,” he says. “When something like this happens it is obviously a very scary prospect for a lot of people—us included.”
Cabin launched its internet radio brand three years ago. The station, which is still waiting on an FM license, publishes daily news articles to its website and streams a mix of programs from its downtown Yellowknife studio. That studio was emptied by April as Cabin, like almost every other business in the North, sent its workers home as a safety precaution. Unlike other companies that struggled to survive the first wave, though, Cabin Radio grew during the pandemic. The newsroom hired new reporters and web traffic nearly tripled. Crowd-funding on Cabin’s Patreon doubled. In a single week in spring, Williams’ five-person newsroom published 58 articles. The team was “laser focused” on their job, he says, which was to make the pandemic understandable. “A really big point of our coverage was to help people and give people a means to get through things.” Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. Let’s be clear about the difference.
Covid Corner lasted three-and-a-half months before everything calmed down enough for Cabin to ease back into regular programming, but over its existence it was more than a news broadcast. Yellowknifers could chat with each other in the comments, and ask questions of MLAs and public officials. The premier even logged in for a live Q&A. It was a support mechanism for those stuck at home and a new community space, if only a virtual one.
Everyone was working together to try and understand what was happening, says Williams. At the best of times that was a team effort. New info would come from the government, journalists would try and decipher what made sense and what didn’t, and the public would respond with their own questions. That’s the role the media plays, he adds.
“Take their best effort and restructure it, repackage it, and sit in front of a camera and say it in plain English.”
Well, not just English.
Making sense of government messaging is difficult enough in one language. But Indigenous-language broadcasters in the North often need to simultaneously translate and make that messaging understandable, all while reading the original document live on the air.
“I always used to say, we perform miracles at CBC Iqaluit and nobody is aware of that,” says Jordan Konek, a former video journalist with CBC North.
Konek left CBC in the fall to become the new executive producer of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. But he was there in the spring for COVID. Though Nunavut would see no active cases until just recently, nobody at the time knew they were safe.
“When we heard there was a presumptive case in Pond Inlet, everyone was freaking out,” says Konek. The only way to get to the north Baffin community would have been from passing through Iqaluit. The presumptive case, thankfully, turned out to be a false positive, though that news didn’t ease an abundance of caution from Nunavummiut.
“We were all nervous,” Konek says. “But we practiced physical distancing, keeping our hands clean. Everybody spoke about how they were tired of washing their hands, how dried their hands were from constantly washing.”
Cabin Radio might be a small team with a big digital footprint in Yellowknife, but terrestrial radio is still how many northern communities stay connected to the outside world. The work CBC and other Indigenous-language broadcasters (like CKLB in Yellowknife) did in keeping Elders and remote communities safe during this pandemic can’t be overstated.
“We’re pretty much the only people that can deliver [the news] in Inuktitut,” says Konek. “People were depending on us. People were following us regularly on social media, sending us questions. People were sending me messages to my personal Facebook page asking, ‘Can you ask this to the health officer of Nunavut?’”
Unfortunately, neither Nunavut’s Health Minister George Hickes nor its Chief Public Health Office Michael Patterson speak Inuktitut, which is how Ooleepika Ikkidluak found herself thrust into the public spotlight.
Ikkidluak has worked as a translator for Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly for 16 years—interpreting cabinet meetings, translating documents, that sort of thing. It was mostly a behind-the-scenes role. But the territory needed a live Inuktut interpretation for its weekly COVID-19 press briefings. So there was Ikkidluak every week in front of the cameras, translating Hickes’ or Patterson’s statements. She was arguably the third most important voice in the territory.
“I was nervous at first,” she says. “I always get nervous before appearing live. Lots of people watching.”
By the way, the Inuktitut term for COVID-19 is nuvajjuarnaq. It roughly translates as “major cold,” says Ikkidluak. “Because, looking at the symptoms, I guess, there are some cold symptoms, but it’s a major cold.”
Coming up with a translation for medical and government terms across languages can sometimes be a struggle. How do you effectively convey the dangers and the seriousness of the situation?
“It has some life and death implications,” Ikkidluak says. “Elders need to understand what they need to do to protect themselves, so I take it very seriously.”
Her efforts have been appreciated. Ikkidluak says she’s received “a lot of feedback” thanking her for explaining to elder Nunavummiut what’s going on and helping them follow the safety measures in place. On social media, she’s become one of Nunavut’s unofficial official points of contact for public health info.
“I’ve had to redirect a lot of questions towards me, about where they should contact for people isolating,” she says. “They think I’m actually the person in charge of that sort of thing.”
One of the people who actually is in charge of that sort of thing is Brendan Hanley.
The Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, like his two territorial counterparts, has often been the face seen on TV giving updates about the North’s COVID-19 response. He communicates what we need to do to stay safe, and answers questions, well, as best as he can. At a press conference in March announcing the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Yukon, a query came in over the phone from a national reporter: “Is now the time to panic?”
“Obviously, it would be an odd thing for me to say, yes, now is the time to panic,” says Hanley.
Before COVID, Hanley and his team were focused on healthy aging, among other persistent northern health issues. For a time, he used to appear regularly on the radio, answering questions from listeners every Tuesday morning with former CBC Yukon host Sandy Coleman. The topics were mostly health related. Sometimes it was how to prepare for summer barbeque season, or tips for making sure your winter tires were on.
At the start of this year, Hanley and his team were busy getting attuned to the “global situation” of coronavirus—preparing strategies for a storm northern health officials knew was all but inevitable. The point of no return came with the decision to cancel the Arctic Winter Games.
“I think everyone turns back to that day,” says Hanley.
Two thousand athletes from all over the world were scheduled to touch down in Whitehorse on March 15. Years of planning went into the event. Millions of dollars were invested. A week before opening day the call was made to put it on ice. It was the same day the total global cases of COVID-19 surpassed 100,000.
The rest of the year took shape in short order. Within a week all non-Canadians were barred entry and the American border was shut down. Non-essential traffic was turned away from the North. Everyone went home. The territories each issued states of emergency that have yet to be lifted.
Hanley and his team found themselves in an unprecedented situation. Synthesizing all the important information about a global pandemic caused by a barely understood virus and presenting it in clear, easy-to-understand updates to Northerners was no easy task. But it was vital.
“The single most important action in a pandemic is communication,” he says. “A pandemic is always about acting on what you know, and doing the best you can with the information you have at the time.”
What criticism there has been of government messaging during the pandemic, though, is that the very channels set up to keep the public informed have at times only spread confusion. Socially-distant press conferences have limited the number of reporters in the room, and the questions being asked. Different government departments have come out with conflicting information about what is and is not allowed. In early June, NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane said tourism was back “on the table” and urged visitors to come back north. The following day the territory’s health minister said leisure travel was still prohibited. At worst, the rules seemed arbitrary and their enforcement inconsistent. In such an environment, misinformation thrives.
“Every bloody day somebody had heard there were three cases of COVID-19 in the hospital,” says Williams.
“Twice, I think, I actually wrote on my Facebook, ‘Make sure you don’t go telling people there’s COVID in Nunavut if you haven’t heard it from the news organizations across the territory or the department of health,’” says Konek.
The public was scared enough to believe the worst. They still are. Rumours on social media continue to circulate, and in an age of misinformation that’s not going to stop anytime soon.
“You can’t control social media,” says Kami Kandola, chief public health officer for the NWT. “You can’t control other people’s conspiracy theories.”
But you can get the truth out.
“Which is why I’m talking with you,” she says. “The only way you can deal with misinformation is providing the right information.”
Kandola was in the middle of a press conference on March 11 when word came that the World Health Organization was declaring a global pandemic. At the time, only 34 coronavirus tests had been performed in the NWT. The number now stands at 5,400 tests completed, with just five confirmed cases who are all fully recovered.
“We had to work really fast and we had a very small staff,” she says. “Things were occurring very quickly… Literally thousands of people were returning from March Break and if we hadn’t reacted quickly those five cases wouldn’t have gone back to normal.”
From the jump, the NWT’s plan of action was shut down fast, ramp up testing, and be cautious about reopening.
“I wanted to just be strategic,” says Kandola. “So we could keep going forward and not going backward.”
But it’s supernaturally difficult to change human behaviour. And the reality is we’re nowhere close to being out of the woods yet. There’s a lot coming, Kandola warns.
“I realize that it’s going to take everything I have to just ride with it,” she says. “It’s not like I get to close the office at five and go home… The public is counting on you to see them through it and choose the evidence to keep them safe.
They need that. It’s not about me, but what does the NWT need from me?”
Still, in the North people have shown a remarkable willingness to adapt. There’s a vivid recognition of how precarious our healthcare systems are, and how vulnerable our remote communities remain. Are we learning to accept this new normal?
“How can you accept this?” Kandola asks.
People want to gather with friends. They miss hugging their loved ones. They want the connection that we all once had.
“There’s so many things people want to do that they can’t right now,” she says. “I don’t think we’re at acceptance. I think we’re grieving.”
A century ago, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people. In the North, panicked Yukon officials heard about influenza cases raging across the border in Skagway. Nearly 200 people died in the Bristol Bay area in a matter of days. In some Alaskan communities, 90 per cent of the population was wiped out. More people died per capita from Spanish Flu in Alaska than almost anywhere else on the planet.
Incoming visitors from Skagway were ordered into a five-day quarantine. What medicine was available was stockpiled and hospital beds made ready. Fearing the contagion could be spread through points of contact, mail was fumigated—the washing groceries of its day. But winter came and went.
“Dawson City continued to function normally,” writes Yukon historian Michael Gates in the Yukon News. “Christmas was enjoyed without the spectre of death, and the arrival of 1919 was celebrated with the annual masque ball at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on New Year’s Eve.”
The Yukon was spared. The NWT wasn’t so lucky. The virus eventually arrived in the summer of 1928. A passenger on a supply ship heading down the Mackenzie River spread an infection among Dene and Inuvialuit, eventually killing an estimated 15 per cent of the NWT’s Indigenous population.
The final toll of this new pandemic is still unknown. In March, there were 100,000 cases worldwide. Seven months later, that number stands at 35 million. A second wave is rising exponentially in southern cities but, for the moment, the North remains almost entirely COVID-free. It’ll be an ongoing challenge to manage that risk; a marathon, not a sprint. Everyone will need to do their part to help.
A debate during the pandemic has been about who really counts as an ‘essential’ worker. But this year should remind us that no one is inessential. We’ve seen how the actions of a single infected individual can ripple outward, putting hundreds at risk. And we’ve seen how a community, working together, can keep us all safe.
No one person could be Northerner of the Year in 2020. The healthcare workers, community groups, the NGOs, journalists, and truck drivers, the teachers working from home, the retail employees, the doctors, and translators, the neighbours who picked up groceries and the kids who put teddy bears in their windows—they all remind us what community means. They’re all the Northerners of the Year because they kept us connected at a time when we all had to be isolated. We’ve made it to see the end of this year because we all cared enough about each other to be uncomfortable, for just a little while.
In Whitehorse, Hanley says one of the biggest impacts COVID-19 has had on his life is how many times he gets stopped now by the public while he’s out on the street.
“The single biggest reason that people stop…” He pauses, inhales sharply. He chokes back tears. “The single biggest reason is to say, ‘Thank you.’ That keeps me on keel.”