By Hilary Bird

The owner of the Yellowknife tour company Aurora Story is denying allegations that the company exploited former employees and forced them to work and live in unsafe conditions.

Aurora Story owner Evan Shi says the allegations, made by former employee Shao Yu, are completely false.

In a CBC News article published Monday, Shao claims he and two friends came to Yellowknife from Toronto in mid-December to work as drivers and tour guides for Aurora Story. He says the three quit 12 days later after they were forced to work long hours with little sleep, in extremely cold, dangerous conditions.

Shao claims he still hasn’t been paid by the company. He filed a complaint with the territorial government’s Employment Standards Office late last week.

When initially presented with Shao’s allegations, Shi declined an interview with CBC News. However, on Tuesday, the Aurora Story owner agreed to an interview.

“When I read [the CBC article] I just know lots of false, incorrect information. So I want to clarify that. I’m not a very outgoing person and I’m shy to speak in public, but this time I think I have to speak out the truth,” Shi said.

When asked if Aurora Story had paid Shao and his friends for their work, Shi said the company is still waiting to receive their social insurance numbers and can’t pay their employees without them.

When presented with Shao’s claims that employees were forced to work extremely long hours, Shi says none of the company’s 15 employees are allowed to work more than seven hours a day.

“Shao Yu asked me for more work. I refused. He wanted to make more money and do more work. In our company policy, we won’t allow that,” Shi said.

Employees outfitted with Canada Goose parkas

Shao also claimed the accommodations he was given were cramped and unsanitary, with 12 people in a tiny one-bathroom apartment. But Shi says only seven people sleep in that four-bedroom apartment, which has two bathrooms.

Shi says the company even offered to find Shao and his friends another place to live.

“Do you think you can rent a room for $200 in Yellowknife? Because what we offer them is far below market value. It’s just 200 bucks for the dormitory.”

Shao also told CBC that he was forced to work in –39 C degree conditions in places with no cellphone service. Shi says cold weather is a reality of working in the North and that Aurora Story employees are all outfitted with Canada Goose parkas and other winter gear.

Shi says the company has been contacted by an employment standards officer regarding Shao’s complaint and is going to meet with the officer later this week.

Aurora Story ‘in compliance’

A spokesperson for the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, which regulates the territory’s tourism operators, told CBC News in an email that the department has previously dealt with safety issues against Aurora Story, “but nothing near the magnitude of what is being suggested” by Shao.

The department said Aurora Story is “in compliance with requirements of their licence and the Tourism Act.”

“These are troubling allegations,” said spokesperson Drew Williams, who said the allegations are being investigated by another government agency.

Williams said should allegations like these be substantiated, the department could potentially revoke a tour operator’s licence, on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, Shi says the company has hired a lawyer and is suing Shao and his friends for “corporate sabotage” and “defamation” for an incident that took place late last year. Shi wouldn’t comment on the details of that incident.

CBC News has attempted to contact Shao for comment, but received no response by publication time.

Originally posted by CBC News on 02/11/2020.