Security guards at Nunavut’s isolation hubs conducted illegal and unconstitutional searches of Nunavummiut’s bags up to five months after the hubs began operations, according to internal government emails obtained by CBC News.
“Could [we] clarify with legal about security searching bags that come into the isolation hub?” one frontline mental health worker emailed another on July 10, 2020. “Legal” in this sentence refers to lawyers in Nunavut’s justice department.
“I do not need to clarify with legal on that. It is unconstitutional and not allowed. Legal has been very clear on that,” the second health worker replied.
Isolation hubs refers to two hotels, in Winnipeg and Ottawa, where Nunavummiut have been required to isolate for 14 days before returning to the territory since the pandemic began.
About a month later, the issue of illegal searches had not been resolved.
“It has come to our attention that security is searching all bags coming into the Winnipeg [redacted]. This is out of the scope of the security team,” an email from the assistant deputy minister of Health, Stephen Jackson, said Aug. 3, 2020.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives everyone “the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.” That means law enforcement officials cannot legally search someone or their property unless they have a warrant or reason to believe the person has evidence of a crime.
On July 11, 2020, Ling responded to an email from Nunavut officials about the illegal searches.
His security team was enforcing a directive from a health official to ban alcohol from the outside area during smoke breaks, Ling wrote. Sometimes guests volunteered to have their bags searched, and guards are being increasingly abused, Ling said.
“As of today, I am going to instruct my staff to stop doing any further actions related to alcohol tracking,” Ling wrote.
In August 2020, Ling responded to the same concerns by assigning responsibility to a different hub manager: “It was reported that [a former hub manager] directed security to check bags going out to the smoking area,” Ling wrote.
Neither Ling nor the Nunavut government responded to media requests for this story.
Isolation hubs ‘severe and extreme’: civil liberty expert
Nunavut is the only Canadian jurisdiction where the government requires all regular citizens to isolate under their watch before returning home.
“I’m sure there are some people who feel this is the way the government shows how seriously they take the health of their population,” Zwibel said.
“There’s another way of looking at it: this is a government that doesn’t trust its population to follow rules, that sees its residents as people that need to be babysat. And that’s a demoralizing message,” she added.
Benson Cowan is the CEO of Nunavut’s legal aid agency. He told CBC he alerted government officials early in the pandemic to concerns over using enforcement rather than public health measures.
The lack of trust in its own citizens while not providing any resources in their home communities is highly problematic, he said.
“I think some of that is internalized racism on our part,” Cowan said. “We’ve just normalized the lack of resources in the communities.”
That includes Nunavut’s longstanding housing crisis, which hasn’t been meaningfully acknowledged or addressed by the government during the pandemic, he added.
“That is, again, just this normalization of a situation that should be of great shame to Nunavut and the country and that just gets glossed over by these hubs,” Cowan said.
Inuit historically targeted for illegal searches: legal aid
What makes things worse, is that Inuit and other Indigenous people have historically been disproportionately subjected to illegal searches by authorities, Cowan said.
“The idea that you would not have more protections for a highly vulnerable group is, I think, highly problematic,” said Cowan.
“Unless someone was smuggling up a virus, the idea of searching someone’s person and subjecting people to that sort of heavy-handed tactic seems to me to be not at all about public health,” he said.
Other privacy infringement at hubs
Illegal searches have not been the only infringement on privacy rights at the hubs. A security subcontractor, hired by Ling, deployed body-worn cameras for a 12 hour period last June before officials were alerted.
“Body-worn cameras are a very invasive technology that raise a lot of questions,” Nunavut’s privacy commissioner Grahame Steele told CBC.
Cowan said the fact that the illegal searches continued for at least a month after justice department lawyers deemed it was unconstitutional is also symptomatic, he added.
“It’s indicative of just how poorly the Government of Nunavut manages any sort of civil rights discourses in its operations,” he said.