Outrage has grown in the two weeks since a wealthy couple embarked on their daring journey to a small community in the Yukon, one of Canada’s far northern territories, to receive a jab of the new COVID-19 vaccine. Debates about privilege, the nation’s fraught colonial history and disregard for public health protocols have swirled since and pushed the community of Beaver Creek into the global spotlight.
“It’s not unusual if the locals don’t recognize all the faces,” says Janet van der Meer, the White River First Nation lead for vaccine coordination, of the area’s familiarity with seeing new people passing through. It was here where Ekaterina and Rodney Baker arrived from Vancouver by private jet and tried to appear as locals to get access to the in-demand shot.
The 85-person community and wider country similarly reacted in anger, with Van der Meer convinced the privileged act revealed a “sense of entitlement” that was “disgusting.” Responses from prominent provincial officials showed equal revulsion, with the Bakers having initially been fined €1500 and now facing further legal challenges.
The backlash since has been swift and Van der Meer admits she was surprised by the coverage, but remains focused on the practical. “I have to keep my community safe during a global pandemic,” she says.
Although second doses are expected later this month and news of the Bakers having tested negative for COVID-19 will alleviate some concern about the consequences of their trip, this is the latest touchpoint in Canada’s difficult past with its indigenous populations.
The couple’s actions are being understood beyond their mere opportunism.
“Given the long-standing issue of First Nations access to health care, it is paradoxical that of all the places where money could buy access to the vaccine, the best choice was a First Nations community”, says Dr. Charles Prior, a history lecturer at the University of Hull.
Dr. Prior highlights this happening at a sensitive time for indigenous relations following the video recorded death of an Atikamekw woman in a Quebec hospital as she was being insulted by hospital staff last September. He believes the Bakers saw the community “as a soft target to access a particular commodity.”
Professor Emma Battell Lowman of Ottawa’s Carleton University says the couple’s actions were “deliberate, anti-indigenous, racist, exploitative, and entirely wrong”, adding that if the government doesn’t punish accordingly, it “further signals its complicity with and support of settler colonial violence.”