Nunavut needs more help from Ottawa to prepare for COVID-19, says Hickes

“I would hate to see 50 years from now that the federal government would have to make an apology for abandoning us now”

Nunavut’s minister of finance and health, George Hickes, says that the federal government needs to provide more support to the territory to prepare for COVID-19. (File photo)

By Meagan Deuling
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(Updated on April 6 at 3 p.m.)

Nunavut Health Minister George Hickes says the federal government needs to provide more help to the territory during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hickes slammed the federal government during an April 1 government of Nunavut daily COVID-19 update, saying that historic funding shortfalls and investments the GN has had to make into federal programs has “hindered our ability to be able to enhance our health care in territory.”

“I would hate to see 50 years from now that the federal government would have to make an apology for abandoning us now,” Hickes said.

He said that the two levels of government had a long-standing agreement where the federal government was responsible for, among other things, medical travel for non-insured Inuit from Nunavut, under the federal Non-Insured Health Benefits program.

But instead, Hickes said that the GN “bore most of the cost in delivering” medical travel to non-insured Inuit from Nunavut.

Nunavut currently spends more than $77 million a year on air travel for non-insured Inuit, who account for 89 per cent of medical travel flights, said Hickes.

He said that the GN will pay $20,000 for a flight out of a Nunavut community, and the federal government will reimburse it $125 for that.

The long-standing agreement expired in 2016. Since then, the GN has been negotiating with the federal government to be retroactively reimbursed for money it has spent on medical travel for non-insured Inuit, Hickes said.

The GN didn’t want to sign a new agreement until it was compensated for money it spent on a federal program, he said.

In the past four years, the governments of Canada and Nunavut have signed interim agreements. The last one expired on April 1.

“So I would say my frustration level is high,” said Hickes.

Hickes said the lack of a new agreement won’t affect Nunavummiut who need medical travel. “This is simply an administrative and an accounting discussion,” he said.

But Hickes said the financial shortfall created by the missing federal funds is a “compounding factor in our ability as a territorial government to ramp up our response capabilities of COVID-19.”

There aren’t any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the territory. But Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health, said that it’s not a matter of if, but when, the pandemic reaches here.

And the territory is poorly equipped to handle it. There are only seven ventilators, and they are the kind meant to be used when a patient is being transported, Patterson said.

There is also a severe shortage of doctors and nurses, and the territory’s housing shortage means COVID-19 would likely spread quickly in overcrowded homes.

Hickes blames the territory’s historic shortage of housing and health infrastructure on the federal government as well.

“When we look at per capita funding,” Hickes said, “I’ve said over and over and over again that it just does not work for Nunavut.”

Nunavut has the lowest population of any province or territory in Canada.

“We have arguably the highest health care costs in the country, yet we’re the least funded because it’s [on] a per capita basis,” Hickes said.

As an example, Hickes said the federal government doled out a $500-million aid package to help provinces and territories prepare for and address COVID-19, and the GN received $516,000 of that, which Hickes said will not go far.

Transport Canada has recommended that the federal and territorial governments continue to buy airline seats at normal levels under the GN duty and medical travel contracts, Hickes said, to keep the airlines going while people aren’t flying.

Hickes said he’s asked Indigenous Services Canada to contribute the amount equal to their passenger load on Canadian North and Calm Air.

He said he sent a letter to Marc Miller, Indigenous services minister on Tuesday night, “outlining their responsibility to support Nunavut airlines through this unprecedented time.”

“What I’m saying is ISC needs to follow the recommendations from Transport Canada and pay for the seats that they are responsible for, and that is 89 per cent of our medical travel scheduled flight seats,” Hickes said.

Hickes also said that he intends to go back to “the original terms of the original extension” of the Non-insured Health Benefits agreement and submit an invoice to the federal government to cover the period from when the original agreement expired, “as they agreed to then,” to get back the money that Nunavut has paid for medical travel flights for non-insured Inuit.

Hickes said that Nunavut needs direct investments from the federal government to keep it at the same level as the rest of Canada.

“The time is now for the federal government to abandon these old methods and practices that do not work for Nunavut,” he said. “Use COVID-19 as an opportunity to do better.”

In response to a request for comment, Canada’s Finance Department responded later with an email, saying that the government is committed to supporting the health and safety of all Canadians, including Nunavummiut. It said in 2020-21 the federal government will transfer almost $1.8 billion to Nunavut through territorial formula financing and health and social transfers.

The email also referred to $305 million in federal funds for Indigenous communities, part of the COVID-19 relief package, of which Inuit got $45 million and Nunavut got $22.5 million, distributed from the federal government to Inuit organizations.

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(12) Comments:

  1. Posted by concerned optimist on

    Prevention more than anything else now is of utmost importance – wash your hands always, avoid congregating to prevent the spread (if it’s not your house, you should NOT BE THERE), TRY to be healthy (eat well, avoid “unhealthy” stuff). AND THEN, when Covid-19 does get here, aside from the help we’re gonna get from the government, we are all called to help each other get through this.

  2. Posted by No Moniker on

    The reality is that few governments around the world were prepared for this, if any. Though some have handled it much better; good examples include South Korea, Iceland, Germany. That said, I think Canada is doing a poor job of it as our rate of testing, though better than some, is still too low and we will see the consequences of that within the next few weeks.

    Aggressive testing can show us where the virus is and even how it behaves. Iceland, for example, has offered testing for anyone who wants it and has discovered that about 50% of cases are without symptoms. Imagine the implications of that kind of information!
    There are other factors that play into the success of containment too, including strict rules around social gathering, and a high quality health care system, which we lack in Nunavut (no fault at all owing to those who run it).
    A further reality is that governments are very poor at being proactive, the GN included. I recall an article not so long ago suggesting that keeping coronavirus out would be as simple as washing our hands. That was good advice in some way I suppose, but not accurate or true in any meaningful way.
    The larger question that has to be asked given the past few weeks is whether it is possible at all to deal with a pandemic without serious global coordination and cooperation; or even without a global government of sorts. In reality, success is contingent on factor that only experts in epidemiology and health can offer. Yet, much of the world is not interested.

    China initially denied the problem and punished the first doctor to report it. The US, in the grips of serious social and political decay is being run by a party that has considered the issue as something close to a hoax, until reality began to sink in (which was too late). Brazil continues to deny the problem exists and has taken almost no action. This kind of disjointed response reminds us of the apathy toward climate change; which will be more consequential in the end.

  3. Posted by Wondering Inuk on

    Recently, more & more, I’ve been thinking of leaving Nunavut since we aren’t getting the same level of services as the rest of Canada.
    If the Federal or Nunavut government is able to set up a program to allow smooth transition for Inuit who want to move to Southern Canada, I would consider it.
    We are pretty much set up for failure in Nunavut for lack of a real economy, housing situations, healthcare etc.

    • Posted by Brandon on

      It’s been discussed since 1994; Nunavut may have been “set up for failure” but not by the Federal Government but by Inuit who thought they could #1 negotiate this kind of deal on their own and #2 run this kind of thing while ensuring their aversion to “Southern” professionals.

      There’s no program for Ontario citizens to easy transition to B.C.! Why do you need one? Just go…it’s a free country.

      And please, teach acceptance of your own circumstances.

    • Posted by Compromise Measure on

      A compromise measure would to be wind-down and close-up the non-viable communities. I would fully support a grant program to financially support residents who want to leave the dying communities – air fare, moving costs, etc. We can’t support 25 non-viable communities, but maybe we could 12.

      As for moving to other provinces – why would you want transition support? Changing provinces and looking for greener pastures has been the way of Canadians for centuries, and is certainly the way now. You get on a plane and go, it is that simple.

  4. Posted by Hubris on

    “I would hate to see 50 years from now that the federal government would have to make an apology for abandoning us now,” Hickes said.

    Do you think the folks in the south might have their own worries to focus on for once, since they have thousands of cases, and Nunavut has zero? What support to you have to offer them in their time of need? Will you be apologizing for your lack of preparation and your inability, not to mention your total lack of interest, in helping out?

  5. Posted by Unpopular Opinion on

    It’s unrealistic to expect duplication of high quality health services across 24 communities; many of them tiny. Comparably sized towns and villages in the south are in the exact same situation. I know this sounds insensitive and there is historical baggage to consider, but some of our tiny communities are too much of a drag on our public finances and should be closed.

    • Posted by Opinion Shouldn’t Be Unpopular – It Is Good Common Sense on

      Exactly – where are you going to send resouces, Oakville or Taloyoak? They would be much more efficiently used in Oakville, and would do greater good for greater numbers. There is no need for an apology for this, it is simple good resource management.

  6. Posted by Shell Game on

    It’s a bit odd to hear the Minister complain about the GN taking on all the costs of services like medical travel, when almost the entire GN budget is funded by the federal government.
    Funding is a serious issue and as I don’t know the numbers I can’t say much, but when it comes to properly staffing our health centers I suspect that money is not the only issue. Doctors and nurses have a fair bit of flexibility in where they chose to work because they are high skilled. What are we doing to attract them to Nunavut, and to retain them? Has the department put much or any thought into that question?

    • Posted by Inuk on

      In order to attract professionals into smaller communities, we need beer/wine, restaurants and other services that are not boring. Most of them want to end up in Iqaluit.

    • Posted by Bang On Correct! on

      Fair bit? Now there’s the understatement of the day. Health professionals, and nurses in particular, have their choice. The nursing shortage is global, not just Canadian.

      Nunavut is competing against the globe, and we have little to offer.

      • Posted by Yepp on

        From what I have gathered by reading the comments on this site over the last few days and on some specific stories the hostility toward “southern” professionals is at a level that really does make one wonder why anyone would chose to come here, let alone make a life.

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