‘It disgusts me’: how a wealthy couple lied to get a vaccine meant for Indigenous people | World news
On a chilly morning in late January, three planes landed on the lone airstrip of a remote community in northern Canada.
The first two carried members of a mobile team from the Yukon territory’s health department who were there to give Covid-19 vaccines to the residents of Beaver Creek. The tiny settlement of about 100 inhabitants had been prioritised because of its older population, many of whom belong to the White River First Nation.
The third aircraft, a bush plane, was unexpected.
Onboard were the casino executive Rod Baker and his wife, the actor Ekaterina Baker, who had broken quarantine and flown to Beaver Creek for the sole purpose of receiving doses of the Moderna vaccine.
Over the next few hours, the couple travelled into town, posed as local motel employees, received their shots and then escaped as quickly as they had arrived.
As Canada struggles with vaccine shortages and delays, the Bakers’ deception has been met with scorn and disbelief. The incident – in which a wealthy white couple received treatment intended for the most vulnerable members of an Indigenous community – has cast a spotlight on the stark divisions of class and race that cut across the country.
“They saw the most vulnerable people within the community on full display and continued on to get the shot,” said Janet Vander Meer of the White River First Nation. “That’s what disgusts me.”
When their chartered plane touched down in Beaver Creek, the Bakers told airport staff they were heading north to Dawson City, but had been forced by fog to land. They would wait in Beaver Creek until the weather improved, they said.
“Obviously they misled the officials when they landed in Whitehorse [the territorial capital] and misled people when they arrived at the vaccination clinic,” said Dave Sharp, owner of Tintina Air, whose company was tricked into flying the Bakers. “They were telling different people different things.”
While the pilot waited, the couple caught a ride towards the town’s main drag: a handful of hotels, gas stations and a tourist information centre, hemmed in by black spruce trees and rolling boreal forest.
“It’s really been a bit of a ghost town. And so vaccination day was meant to be a small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for people,” said Vander Meer, who worked with territorial officials to help set up the vaccination event. “The clinic and the vaccine coming was a reason for us to celebrate.”
Since early January, the Yukon government has used two mobile vaccination teams to target vulnerable and hard-to-reach areas such as Beaver Creek. The teams – Balto and Togo – are named after two famous sled dogs, in a nod to the region’s harsh conditions.
It is unclear how the Bakers knew about the team’s visit to Beaver Creek – nearly 3,000km (1,900 miles) from their luxury condominium in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia.
As head of Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which runs racetracks and casinos across the country, Rod Baker made a profit of C$45.9m ($35.7m) in stock options exercised over the past 13 months, according to the Globe and Mail. He resigned from his role after he was charged by Yukon officials. Ekaterina has appeared in a number of films, including Chick Fight and Fatman.
After Bakers allegedly asked for a ride to the airport, members of the vaccine team grew suspicious. Calls to local motels confirmed that neither were employees. The team then contacted Yukon’s law enforcement officials.
In Beaver Creek, where residents found out about the couple’s ploy from local reporters, not the government, the immediate response was one of panic: thanks to its isolation, the community had not seen any confirmed cases of the virus, but age and pre-existing health conditions meant that its population was firmly in the demographic most vulnerable to Covid-19.
“I have never seen anybody charter flights to Beaver Creek,” said Quanah Giuseppe Vander Meer, another member of White River First Nation. “I’ve lived there most of my life and it scared me hearing about them being able to sneak in like that.”
Janet Vander Meer, who had spent months working out the logistics of the vaccine delivery, went home and cried.
“I felt as if I had let my community down,” she said. “The mental toll that these people put on me and my family, making me feel like I did something wrong – that’s not acceptable. It’s something l’m still grappling with.”
Janet Vander Meeer is still furious to think that before receiving their own vaccinations, the Bakers would have seen both her mother – who is in palliative care and moves with a walker – as well as an 88-year-old Beaver Creek resident waiting in line for the vaccine.
“You’d think at that point, one of them would say ‘OK, honey, let’s get back to our chartered plane.’ But no – they got their shot,” she said.
News of the Bakers’ trip reached the wider world when local papers reported that the couple had been fined for breaching lockdown rules. And when the size of the fine – C$2,300 ($1,800) – was compared with the couple’s wealth, the outrage only grew.
“There is nothing more un-Canadian than going to another jurisdiction to jump the line because you have the means to do so,” the British Columbia premier, John Horgan, told reporters.
Last week, Yukon officials announced the tickets had been stayed and the Bakers were summoned to appear in court, where they will face charges for failing to self-isolate for 14 days and failing to act in a manner consistent with their declarations upon arriving in the Yukon. If convicted, they could face up to six months in jail. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are also investigating. The Bakers have not commented publicly since the charges were filed.
Alongside indignation over the Bakers’ behaviour, the saga has highlighted the deeply rooted racial inequities of Canada’s healthcare system: many remote Indigenous communities lack sufficient resources to care for residents and are especially vulnerable to outside infection during the pandemic.
“We know that this is a system that has failed Indigenous peoples … and treated Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens,” said Marc Miller, Indigenous services minister, to a conference on racism in the healthcare system last week.
Janet Vander Meer said her efforts remained fixed on White River’s safety – and ensuring nothing like this happened again.
“I don’t care what they were doing or thinking when they came up here. I don’t have time for that,” she said. “Right now, I need to focus on getting the community ready to get the second dose of the vaccine safely. Because that’s what matters most.”