Lawrence Neyando owns and operates a motorcycle adventure tourism company, Arctic Motorcycle Adventures, which is based in Inuvik, a small community of 3,200 in the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories.
The company’s first year of operation in summer of 2019 was a success.
“It was good,” Neyando told APTN News. “By February (2020) I was fully booked for my summer season. Then the pandemic hit in March and it pretty much cancelled the season.”
Neyando’s business relies on the Yukon, as riders begin their journey in Dawson City and ride into N.W.T. through the Dempster highway, the only highway that reaches the McKenzie Delta region.
But with two-week self-isolation rules required when entering both territories for much of the last year, he says unpredictably with COVID-19 resulted in him not offering tours this summer, either.
“I lost about $22,000 just prepping for my summer season (in 2020) so I didn’t want to make that mistake this year,” he says.
Business aside, Neyando says self-isolation requirements have made it difficult for McKenzie Delta residents to travel the Dempster highway which acts as a lifelong to the closest urban centre.
MacKenzie Delta residents often travel the highway to stock up on supplies and see family.
“It’s a place for people to go get their shopping done. The prices are a lot cheaper there then they are in Inuvik or any of the communities here,” he says.
Since COVID-19 hit, Neyando has only driven to the Yukon once and had to use his annual vacation to self-isolate in Inuvik when he returned.
He says being essentially unable to travel to the Yukon feels isolating.
“It’s definitely tough right for mental health for not only us up here but everybody who wants to get out and see family members and get all the stuff they need done,” he says.
He’s advocating for an easing of restrictions with the McKenzie Delta’s next door neighbor.
“We have a big connection over there and we’ve had very few cases here and the Yukon’s the same and it’d be nice to have a bubble,” he says.
Relaxation of self-isolation requirements could help businesses
Shawn Lundrigan, who is Inuvialuit and lives in Tuktoyaktut in the Beaufort Delta, is the owner of North Coast Ventures Ltd, a trucking company that also provides tourism activities like aurora viewing and snowmobile tours.
He says he hasn’t had any tourists since the pandemic started.
“None. None whatsoever,” he says.
He says getting truck parts and services in the Yukon is now much more difficult and he’s had to resort to meeting people at the Yukon border to arrange pickup and drop off of parts.
“We obviously can’t (get it for ourselves) and have to arrange all that stuff with some other third party or business and get them to run around Whitehorse and pick up all that stuff. It’s kind of a hassle,” he says.
He’s hopeful relaxed self-isolation requirements with the Yukon will make doing business easier.
“Whitehorse is such a big economic centre with a lot of parts and distribution places and there’s just so many big city ticketed items in Whitehorse that we use up here on a daily basis,” he says.
He adds it would be good for children in the Beaufort Delta region to be able to visit the Yukon.
“The people that are really taking it to heart are the kids,” he says.
“It’d be really good for the kids to get out and go to the Takhini Hot Springs, go skiing at Mount Sima or seeing some big mountains. Just driving down the Dempster is a good experience for kids. I really feel for the kids anyways because they’re not able to get out there and see all this stuff.”
Gwich’in Tribal Council pushing for travel exemption
Ken Kyikavichik, Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, says Gwich’in families living on both sides of the border have been struggling with not being able to be together for funerals.
“It’s certainly become something that’s been incredibly hard to deal with for family members who are unable to attend the funeral services mostly due to the timing,” he says.
He also notes self-isolation requirements have prevented some Gwich’in in the Yukon from travelling to the N.W.T. to harvest porcupine caribou which is an important food source.
“As Gwich’in people we have a certain level of dependence on the porcupine caribou herd and the annual harvest of caribou to feed our families for subsistence,” he says.
He says the council is pushing not for a bubble but for a travel exemption where Beaufort Delta residents would have to apply to go to the with the Yukon and vice-versa.
That’s because the Yukon had a travel bubble with B.C. last year which it extended to N.W.T. The Yukon closed the bubble in November 2020 when COVID-19 cases in B.C. skyrocketed.
Kyikavichik says the bubble posed safety concerns for N.W.T. residents.
“Indirectly, there was a possibility that someone from the province of British Columbia could travel into the N.W.T through a bubble” he says.
With 82 cases of COVID-19 in the Yukon and 98 in N.W.T., Kyikavichik is hopeful the relatively low numbers will put pressure on the N.W.T. government to issue exemptions to people living in the Delta region.
“What we understand is the government of the Northwest Territories is looking to engage with the Yukon government on this issue to see if there would be an opportunity to put something in place now,” he says.
Yukon hints change coming
It’s likely a travel exemption is in the works.
In N.W.T. fully vaccinated people entering the territory now only have to self-isolate for eight days instead of 14.
On May 25 people entering the Yukon will not be required to self-isolate as long as they can prove they’ve been fully vaccinated.
Yukon premier Sandy Silver hinted plans were underway during a COVID-19 press conference on April 28.
“It’s something we’re continuing to work on and I’m very confident that we’ll have an announcement within the very near future on what we can do,” he said.
Meanwhile Neyando is hopeful the Yukon’s relaxation of rules means a drive down the dempster will soon be a reality.
“We want out. We’re waiting at that border and knocking on that gate.”