B.C. couple pleads guilty after flying to Yukon to jump COVID-19 vaccine queue
VANCOUVER -- A plea has been entered in the case of a B.C. couple accused of chartering a flight to a remote Yukon community to get their COVID-19 vaccinations before they were eligible in their home province.
Rod Baker, former CEO of a gaming company, and his wife, Ekaterina, pleaded guilty in a Whitehorse courtroom Wednesday.
The Bakers had been charged under the territory's Civil Emergency Measures Act with failing to self-isolate for 14 days and to act in a manner consistent with their declarations upon arriving in Yukon. Each has been ordered to pay a total of $1,150, a financial penalty proposed in a joint submission by Crown and defence.
The amount is the maximum $500 fine per count they've been charged with, plus a victim surcharge of $75 per count, and each was charged with two counts under the act.
The judge called their actions pre-meditated, cavalier and careless, and agreed to the sentencing submission.
Chief Judge Michael Cozens acknowledged mitigating factors during the hearing, including that no one contracted COVID-19 through the couple.
The court heard they have also each donated $5,000 to COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, a worldwide effort to ensure fair access to doses.
In an agreed statement of facts, the court heard the Vancouver couple flew to the area, claiming they were there for tourism and education.
Two days later, they took a chartered plane to the small community of Beaver Creek, located about a 30-minute drive from the Alaska border, back in January.
It is alleged the purpose of this trip was so that the couple could secure their first doses of COVID-19 vaccines early, as they were not yet eligible through B.C.'s age-based timeline.
Officials say the pair posed as hospitality workers at the time, in order to qualify for the shot. They were vaccinated with one dose each at a mobile clinic, then flew black to Whitehorse.
They were stopped at the airport as they tried to fly home, those involved in the investigation said.
Crown attorney Kelly McGill said there was a "high level of deception" involved, including that they'd pre-registered to get their shots at the clinic.
According to McGill, the trip cost the couple about $10,000.
Rod Baker, who was earning millions of dollars in his job at Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, according to a 2019 figure, resigned from the Toronto-based company a few days after the allegations were made public.
The Bakers chose not to speak during Wednesday's hearing, but their lawyer told the court they apologized unreservedly, and that they regret the impact of their actions, including psychological harm to the community outlined in an impact statement.
Janet Vander Meer, a member of the White River First Nation which makes up about half of Beaver Creek's population of 100, said some of the area's most vulnerable residents felt anxiety, thinking the clinic may not have been safe.
Prior to the incident, Vander Meer said in her statement, "It was never a thought in our mind that someone would take advantage of our situation as a small, remote community."
The allegations drew scrutiny from health officials and the general public, as well as B.C. Premier John Horgan.
At a news conference in January, the premier called the wealthy couple's alleged actions "offensive" and "about as un-Canadian as you can get."
As for when they'd get their second dose of the vaccine, B.C.'s Ministry of Health said at the time where was "no room" in its system for people who deliberately skipped the line, and that they would not be able to book an appointment in the province until others in their age category are eligible for that dose.
B.C.'s top doctor, who has been leading the province's fight against COVID-19, said if the allegations were true, the Bakers should be "ashamed."
"They put a community at risk for their own benefit, and that, to me, is appalling," Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Bhinder Sajan in Victoria, APTN's Sara Connors in Whitehorse and The Canadian Press's Brenna Owen in Vancouver