'One person said to me today they feel like prisoners in their own communities'

Neophyte MLA copes with constituents' isolation

By JIM BELL

Ron Elliot's got a lot on his plate these days.

The MLA for Quttiktuq and one of 11 rookie members elected last fall, Elliot will arrive in Iqaluit with an enormous list of to-do items when the Nunavut legislature reconvenes Jan. 26.

Elliot, who won the seat by a margin of only nine votes, represents three of the smallest and most isolated communities in Nunavut: Arctic Bay, Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay.

"Where to start? There's quite a few of them," he said this week in response to a question about what his constituents have asked him to work on over the next four years.

To no one's surprise, issues that sit at the top of that list are all related to the High Arctic region's small population and geographic isolation: airline transportation, the high cost of living and food mail.

"One person said to me today they feel like prisoners in their own communities, because it costs so much to travel anywhere," Elliot said.

And when Unaalik Aviation cancelled a set of routes this past December that connected Pond Inlet, Nanisivik and Resolute Bay with Cambridge Bay, that feeling intensified.

That means if you're from Grise Fiord or Resolute Bay and want to visit family members in Pond Inlet, you must now take a long and expensive flight to Iqaluit, overnight for a couple of days, then fly back up to Pond Inlet.

The airline situation also creates problems for the territorial government's operations.

"A government worker in CGS in Pond Inlet who has to go to Grise Fiord for a community visit has to spend a good week travelling, sitting in communities you're not even going to be working in. Think of all the lost hours," Elliot said.

"If you have someone in Grise Fiord with braces who has to go to Iqaluit for a 15-minute appointment to adjust them, it's a week-long journey," Elliot said.

Another sore point for Elliot's constituents is the federal government's oft-criticized food mail program.

The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs gives Canada Post about $35 million a year to subsidize the cost of flying fresh, nutritious perishable food to communities in northern Canada.

At least, that's the theory. In practice, food often arrives in bad shape.

"I've had food mail come with raven droppings on top of the boxes. Unless they have a real problem with raven infestation, obviously the boxes have been sitting on the tarmac somewhere. And some boxes have holes in them because ravens have chewed through some of the boxes to get at whatever is inside," Elliot said.

Yet another transportation issue is the status of the Nanisivik naval port, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in August of 2007.

That port, to be built on what's left of an old dock that used to serve the decommissioned lead-zinc mine at Nanisivik, is intended to act as a refueling station for the fleet of Arctic patrol ships that Harper also announced that summer.

Elliot said this project, which Arctic Bay residents greeted with enthusiasm 18 months ago, now appears to be a year or two behind schedule.

The site, now owned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has yet to be transferred to the Department of National Defence, Elliot said.

But a bigger question is the status of the 32-km road between Arctic Bay and the airport at Nanisivik that the Government of Nunavut still runs.

That's because the GN plans to replace the Nanisivik airport with a new municipal airport in Arctic Bay that will cost at least $21 million to complete.

Elliot says his constituents fear that if the GN closes the Nanisivik-Arctic Bay road, they'll be cut off from any job and training opportunities that are likely to flow from the eventual development of a naval port at Nanisivik.

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