Southern teachers in Nunavik remain on standby to leave region: union
End now in sight to “a very distressing situation”
(Updated at 4:30 p.m.)
Nunavik’s director of public health is backpedalling on a decision that would have left about 150 teachers unable to fly out of the region during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The lockdown on scheduled flights in and out of Nunavik and between the region’s communities was made last night, shortly after the second case of COVID-19 was declared in Puvirnituq.
On March 31, Nunavik’s director of public health, Marie Rochette, had initially forbidden the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq school board to make travel arrangements for its employees who wished to go back home: “In accordance with the powers conferred on me by the Public Health Act, I hereby order the personnel of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq (KI) presently in the communities to remain there,” she wrote.
So the scheduled KI charters were cancelled.
But that decision changed on Friday, April 3, after some teachers and the union started to publicly criticize the situation.
“We were able to identify which teachers can leave—we received lists from the Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, and worked it out and decided on a number to stay to help our resources and others will be going,” Minnie Grey, the executive director of the Nunavik Regional Health and Social Services Board, said on Friday, April 3.
“We were considered to be holding the teachers as hostages but that’s not the case…. We’re not holding anybody hostage but it’s been clarified and more vulnerable people can leave.”
Larry Imbeault, president of the Association of Employees of Northern Quebec, who was told of the change by KI’s human resources department today, welcomed the news that the stranded teachers would be able to leave.
“When I received the news, I got chills. Almost tears in my eyes. Since yesterday I could not think about anything else. Last thing before falling asleep, first thing I thought about when I woke up, I was only thinking about them wanting to leave, but being unable to do so,” Imbeault said.
For many teachers in the North, Imbeault said it was “a very distressing situation … isolation from their dependents returned to the South, concerns about accessible medical care in the North and psychological distress as a result.”
Imbeault compared the situation of Nunavik’s non-local teachers to that of Canadians travellers who found themselves trapped overseas until the federal government arranged for aircraft to bring them home.
He also noted that, since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Premier François Legault has told Quebec residents to go back home as soon as possible and remain in isolation.
Teachers responded to the news, which had not yet been confirmed to me, with relief.
“I was really trying to be patient and just wait, but at some point, you just really start to feel quite isolated and just lose all your patience because it just seems like no one is taking the situation seriously,” said one of the Nunavik teachers who spoke to Nunatsiaq News, who asked not to be identified over fear of losing their jobs.
“When I learned that passenger flights were cancelled and I would be unable to leave, as I was promised, it took a large toll on my mental health. Myself and many teachers have been scared, anxious and experiencing panic attacks over our situation.”
The teachers feared they would be able to leave for weeks or months if the pandemic isolation continued.
And, if that was the case, some said as soon as they were allowed to leave Nunavik, they planned to break their teaching contracts and not return to the school board.
“Many of us love the region and love teaching here, but cannot accept this kind of treatment,” a teacher said.
Over the past month, teachers and their union received many mixed messages, Imbeault said. At one point, with no students to teach, teachers were told they had to “volunteer” to clean public buildings—an order since retracted.
Spring breaks for school are staggered in Nunavik, and some had decided to stay in Nunavik over spring break.
“When the schools closed on March 13, those of us in Nunavik were told we could leave, but we had to pay for it ourselves and we had to book a return flight to return to work by March 30, and that we might be made to do 14 days quarantine when we came back … so they were really discouraging us to leave,” said a teacher.
That round trip ticket would have cost about $4,000.
For those who stayed, that’s when the trouble with leaving started.
“We all didn’t realize at that point how serious it was going to be, so most of us who were in Nunavik stayed here,” the teacher said. “However, as time passed I started to realize how serious this was getting as we all saw that flights schedules were becoming less and less available, and that regional travel restrictions were being put in place. ”
One panicked teacher paid for their own round ticket, but the teacher said they really couldn’t afford that.
“I wanted to go home because without a vehicle here or family to help me out, it’s not easy to do things like get drinking water or go to the grocery store as my community is very spread out. It’s also difficult to know what is going on, since I don’t understand Inuktitut and all the community news is on the FM radio,” the teacher said.
“Normally when we are working every day, we have our centre directors to help us and keep us in the loop, so without that daily community link and having to stay inside and self-isolate, I started to feel a bit helpless.”
The teacher said that, like many non-local employees with other regional organizations who were able to leave, it was their intention to travel back home to be with their family.
“This is something I was assured many times I would be able to do,” the teacher said.
The school board had told Nunatsiaq News earlier in March “teachers and staff who have renewed their contract with the school board for next year will have the option to stay in Nunavik until the travel ban is lifted.”
But then it looked like all of them were stuck there. At the same time, the goodwill for renewing their teaching contracts faded.
“I do not see how I could continue to put myself in a position where I would be away from my family if there is a possibility that I will be lied to, tricked and trapped like this. It is also building resentment among teachers,” a teacher said before receiving news of the change in policy. “There is a lot of talk about being less inclined to work here as teachers in the future as a result of treatment of us.”
(with files from Elaine Anselmi)