May 13, 2021

cruciforme

travel, Always a step ahead

An interview with two journalists who broke the story of the Yukon vaccine thieves.

7 min read

Earlier this week, the news broke that a wealthy Canadian couple illegally snuck into a vaccination clinic in a remote Yukon community.

Rod and Ekaterina Baker, a casino executive and actress who appear to be worth millions, are alleged to have traveled to Canada’s northern Yukon territory, chartered a small plane into the tiny town of Beaver Creek, home to the White River First Nation, and presented themselves at the mobile vaccine clinic, posing as newly arrived hotel workers. The couple received their first doses of the Moderna vaccine but raised suspicions when they asked for a ride back to the airport afterward. They were later intercepted, ticketed, and charged under the Yukon’s Civil Emergency Measures Act for violating the territory’s mandatory self-isolation orders upon arrival. The act allows for a punishment of up to six months in jail, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating further.

The Yukon has seen low case counts throughout the pandemic: There have been just 70 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one reported death, out of 35,000 residents. The government implemented travel restrictions, among other measures, early on, an approach driven in part by the territory’s vulnerability and limited medical infrastructure. Most Yukon communities have only a nursing station at most, and even in Whitehorse, the small capital city where I live, the hospital has only a handful of ICU beds and a limited oxygen supply. Critically ill patients are often put on medevac flights to southern hospitals. That’s meant that even when the virus seemed to be entirely absent from the region, people remained on guard; our vulnerability is also the reason why Canada’s federal government has prioritized the three northern territories for vaccination. The territory, in turn, has put remote, predominantly Indigenous communities like Beaver Creek, home to high-risk Elders and knowledge keepers, at the front of the line.

Jackie Hong, a reporter at CBC Yukon, was the first to break the story of the incursion last Friday. On Monday, Haley Ritchie of the Yukon News was the first to name the Bakers. The story has since traveled around the world. I asked Hong and Ritchie, two of my colleagues in the Yukon press corps, how they got their scoops, what it’s been like to see their reporting spread so far, and how the pandemic has affected their work. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How did you first become aware of this story?

Hong: We received a tip from someone who was made aware of the tickets and gave CBC Yukon a little nudge, saying, Hey, you should look into this. So that’s how it started.

What were your first steps?

Hong: I put in a request with Health and Social Services first, but they directed me to Cabinet communications, so I sent a message to them, and they said they would follow up. Then my next call was to the White River First Nation—I spoke to, I guess, the person who answers the phone at the front desk, and she said she hadn’t heard anything like that. She passed me on to the executive director who told me about the same and said there had been a few contractors in town, but they had been hired by White River and given permission to get vaccines, so he thought that maybe it was just a community rumor spun out of control. And then he gave me the number for the person who runs the Beaver Creek airport. I called her as well and she said she had no idea what I was talking about, there were only three flights in that day, and there were no non-Yukoners on any of those flights.

So at first I thought, like the executive director said, that this was just a rumor. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later when I heard back from [Yukon Minister of Community Services John Streicker] that I realized it was real.

Haley, was the first you heard about it Jackie’s Twitter thread on Friday, or did you get a tip too?

Ritchie: It was Jackie’s Twitter thread. We [at the Yukon News] knew we would have to match the story, so I wanted to get started on that Friday. I contacted the courthouse to see if we could get copies of the tickets, so we could do some of our own reporting.

You both had copies of the tickets issued to the Bakers by Friday afternoon. And then what?

Hong: The weekend was definitely spent doing a lot of internet trawling and cross-checking. [The Bakers had] a pretty big social media presence that got pulled down, I think, by Monday, but on the weekend there was still a ton of stuff online.

Ritchie: Saturday morning I spent quite a bit of time just downloading [their social media histories] because I was pretty sure it was going to disappear quickly. I was cross-referencing their birth dates, which I had from the ticket, with that social media information, and also the date of their marriage just to make sure that this was the right couple.

Hong: Same here. Because he was the CEO of this casino company, there were stories with photos of him and his age from industry events, so that really helped to nail down that this was the guy with more confidence.

Was there any discussion in either of your newsrooms about dropping the names on Friday, or was the plan always to find out more and make a fuller profile before making the names public?

Ritchie: We were pretty solid to wait until Monday—I wanted to be very, very sure. It would have been a problem if I hadn’t gotten it right, so I needed some time.

Hong: On my end, we had received the confirmation from the minister before receiving the tickets, so we already had the main story up. And like Haley said, we wanted to make sure we got it right. Just the reaction to the initial story—the last thing you want to do in this kind of situation is put up a photo of the wrong person, especially when the reaction is so visceral. I can’t repeat some of the things that people were saying in the comments, and that was before we had named them.

After the names were public, were you surprised by how far the story traveled?

Hong: I think I knew that it had the potential to blow up, because it hits so many hot-button topics right now. Especially in the context of the pandemic, and not just in the Yukon but Canada-wide and possibly even worldwide.

Ritchie: There was a lot of speculation about who they were, why they could have done this, and then when the actual truth came out, it’s almost cartoon-y. It struck a nerve but also, the whole plot is bizarre. I can understand why people are upset about it, not just in White River First Nation but around the world. People have made so many sacrifices.
It’s frustrating to see that not everyone is willing to make those sacrifices.

They did turn out to be maximum cartoon villains, didn’t they?

[LAUGHTER]

What has it been like covering the pandemic more broadly, in a region that is relatively unaffected but high-stakes in terms of its vulnerability?

Ritchie: I kind of miss scrums, to be honest. News-gathering is different.

Hong: I know it’s so much worse in big centers, but it feels like even a small development here hits harder because it’s such a small community. I was at the press conference when they announced Yukon’s first two cases, and I know it’s a cliché, but it really was a bombshell. It felt like we were in this little island of safety and then all of a sudden, no, it’s here. What happens to us? We have basically one real hospital. So it’s been an interesting mix of feeling like you’re in a little bubble of safety, watching everything happen down south, but at the same time it’s so scary.

Do you think there’s a benefit for local reporters specifically, or local news generally, when a story like this goes really big? Does it help the cause of local news, or your careers? Or is it more like: Your mentions are crazy for a few days, you keep doing your job, and life goes on?

Hong:  I am not sure. Like you said, my Twitter notifications are basically unusable right now, but I don’t know in the long term if that will make people appreciate having reporters on the ground more, or if it’s just kind of, ‘oh, great job, see you never!’ I’ve been getting a lot of kudos from my friends but I don’t know if my career has advanced in the past four or five days necessarily.

Ritchie: Yeah, I haven’t gotten any job offers. [laughs] For me it’s meaningful when people in our industry, reporters who I admire, tweet out the story. But I find sometimes these things are kind of a flash in the pan.

Hong: I think the story just really illustrates the power and the value of having reporters on the ground. We’re two local reporters based in Whitehorse, and we broke a story that the world is chasing now.

Future Tense
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Arizona State University
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