This May 2020 photo captured Qavavao Peter’s last visit with his father Ejetsiaq Peter at the Ottawa Hospital. The 83-year-old died in early June, shortly after he was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Q. Peter)

“We have no choice”: Nunavut families of COVID-19 victims lament risks of travel

Family calls on GN to be more transparent about COVID-19 deaths

By Sarah Rogers

Throughout last spring, Ejetsiaq Peter struggled with digestive problems.

The 83-year-old Kinngait elder flew to Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit for treatment, but weeks later, he still couldn’t keep food down. He was sent south to the Ottawa Hospital in late April to have a feeding tube put in.

By then, most of the country was in some form of lockdown, just weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really didn’t want him to go,” said Qavavao Peter, Ejetsiaq’s son. “But we knew we had to get this done.”

In Ottawa, Ejetsiaq was regularly tested for COVID-19. He tested positive for the virus three days after his surgery.

Hospital staff told the family the man was likely infected in the operating room. His condition gradually worsened and he died on June 7.

“We didn’t expect him to catch it at all, but you never know where it will show up,” Qavavao said. “He even got it in a place where he was supposed to be most protected.”

Ejetsiaq may have been the first Nunavummiut to die of complications from COVID-19, but most people across the territory didn’t hear about it.

The Nunavut government says five people from the territory have died from the disease since the start of the pandemic, but only counts one death in its statistics.

That’s because the government only counts cases caught in the territory. This is a problem, Peter said, because so many Nunavummiut have no choice but to travel south for health care.

He’s calling on the government to be more transparent about the risks associated with health-care travel.

Lorne Kusugak, Nunavut’s health minister, speaks at a November news conference on COVID-19. (File photo)

“It’s like he’s just a guy who went south and died”

Months later, on Dec. 20, the Government of Nunavut announced the territory’s first COVID-19-related deaths after two residents — one from Rankin Inlet and another from Arviat — died in southern hospitals. Soon after, the government revised that statistic down to one death.

The Department of Health has not explained why some deaths were announced, and others weren’t, but has said the territorial government is only recording the deaths of individuals who were infected with the virus in Nunavut.

Nunavut Health Minister Lorne Kusugak said health authorities in Nunavut are still working with other jurisdictions to determine the best way to record out-of-territory deaths.

“The discussion around that is still going on at this time,” he said. “Stats are not a high priority — there are so many other pressing issues at this point.”

Qavavao says it’s difficult for his family to hear other deaths announced and mourned.

“No one talked about it. My dad was from Nunavut, born and raised here,” he said.

“It kind of hurt me. It’s like he’s just a guy who went south and died.”

Expectant parents in Nunavut have few options for care

On Jan. 2, Silatik Qavvik, a 35-year-old mother from Sanikiluaq, died in a Winnipeg hospital, six weeks after she was infected with COVID-19, and just weeks after she delivered a baby girl.

Her death has prompted renewed calls for maternity care and midwifery services in Nunavut. Women can deliver in three communities: Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay and normally in Rankin Inlet, though birthing services are suspended there now due to staffing shortages.

“For many years, we’ve advocated for community-based childbirth,” said Rebecca Kudloo, the president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada.

“Especially now with a pandemic, we worry a lot when our people go south for medical. But we have no choice.”

Silatik Qavvik died in a Winnipeg hospital in December, a few weeks after the Sanikiluaq woman was infected with COVID-19. Her husband and newborn baby were also infected but both recovered from the virus. (Photo courtesy of Qavvik family)

That was the case for Qavvik and her partner Peter, who flew to Winnipeg on Nov. 10 ahead of the birth of their fifth child.

All five of their children were born in Winnipeg. Peter said the couple would have liked to deliver in Iqaluit, but Silatik was considered at high risk for pre-term labour — all her children were born prematurely.

“Me and my wife had no choice but to go to Winnipeg,” he said.

Apart from hospital appointments, Peter said he and his wife only went out once to shop for baby essentials.

Silatik started showing symptoms around Nov. 20, he said: she had chills and was short of breath. She tested positive for COVID-19 a couple days later.

The couple’s daughter, Lisi, was born by caesarian section at St-Boniface hospital on Nov. 23 – the same day the couple’s eldest daughter was born 16 years earlier.

The baby girl also tested positive for COVID-19. The infant was transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg for special care; she’s since recovered and is back home in Sanikiluaq.

Qavvik saw his wife for the last time on Nov. 25, just before he too tested positive for the virus.

“I said, ‘See you later and I love you,’” he recalled, tearfully.

Medical travel down significantly in 2020, GN says

Medical travel is a reality of Nunavut’s health-care system. A 2015 study found that 58 per cent of all Nunavut patients requiring both inpatient and outpatient care must travel outside of the territory.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, the Nunavut government says it’s been looking to minimize the number of patients who must fly out of the territory.

“The priority is always that the best safety measures are taken, whatever care our patients need,” said Health Minister Kusugak. “That hasn’t changed.”

The territorial government is also working to bring more services to the territory, he said, like some cancer screening and chemotherapy in Iqaluit and certain surgeries performed in Rankin Inlet.

“There’s some that have to go,” Kusugak said. “But I think we have significantly less medical travel to the south.”

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(24) Comments:

  1. Posted by Nunavummiut on

    We often hear about the importance of symbolism. Who could deny its importance in a time and circumstance like ours today, where so many feel so powerless. I hope our MP will reach out and offer some words of public consolation around the pain and loss we have suffered in the invisible hands of this pandemic.

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  2. Posted by Rotting in NU on

    The GN is worried that southern hospitals will not have capacity to accept NU patients. Meanwhile, if you are not dying like this man, but need a southern hospital, you are asked to rot. Non emergency medical travel has been stalled for a year now. When can I go for my condition? They will not say. Meanwhile my wellness deteriorates. I am not dying, but I need assistance. I have been refused medical travel several times. I may be forced to just leave the jurisdiction to get adequate care. Waiting for my vaccine and going one way or another. Very disappointed with Department of Health.

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    • Posted by Lindejy on

      I don’t have the right words, but I can imagine your frustration. This must be very difficult. I hope there are some things you can do to at least mitigate your condition in the mean time. Best of luck, sincerely.

  3. Posted by Self Reliance on

    The answer is self reliance.
    .
    Nunavummiut need to decide to put in the time and effort to become the service providers Nunavummiut want and need.
    .
    Don’t complain about the lack of doctors in Nunavut. Become a doctor.
    .
    Don’t complain about the lack of places to give birth. See it as an opportunity, learn what you need to learn and organize the construction of what you want to have.
    .
    Not satisfied with the availability of vacine in Nunavut. Learn how to make vacines so you will be ready next time.
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    Difficult, yes it’s dificult. The question is, is it worth it?

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    • Posted by Silaqqi on

      So easy to try and make people responsible to make a difference when even education is, and always has been, lacking! How can we, make a difference when not even given the opportunity to? Are there universities in Nunavut where youth aren’t forced to leave their home? I am a residential school is survivor and I had to leave home to better my schooling! I don’t see how your comment on self reliance makes sense when there is no opportunity for it to begin with!

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      • Posted by Leaving Home Is Part of the Educational Process on

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        Very few have the incredible luxury of not ‘leaving home’ to pursue an education. Unless you live in Toronto or Montreal or some of the other major centres, leaving home to get an education is actually part of the education.

        Why would you expect any different here? We don’t have the demographic, economic, or instructional base to support a university. Maybe one day, but not now. What we need to figure out is how to get more qualified to attend training, and the get them to return.

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      • Posted by University educated on

        I’m from down south originally and every single person who graduated my high school who went to university had to leave home to do so. Indeed, unless you lived in one of three cities in the province, every student had to leave home to go to university.
        .
        It’s a peculiar Nunavut way of thinking that demands ones kids must never be able to leave their home community.

    • Posted by Our Brain Drain on

      While I applaud the aspiration for more local professionals of this type, regardless of whether they are Inuk or not, it is not a long-term solution.

      No part of the country is “self-sufficient”, there is always a need for expertise from elsewhere. All of the north will have a need for experts from elsewhere for any reasonable forecast into the future. Self-sufficiency was more possible 70 years ago than it is now, this is just the way it is.

      What is needed is a way to increase the uptake of professions, particularly in the sciences and technology, by Nunavut students, who then choose to stay in Nunavut. We also need to find a way to get back our diaspora, both Inuit and non-Inuit. Too many leave for education and never return – we can’t sustain this brain drain.

      We are not unique, many rural and lower-opportunity areas of the country have the same issues as us. We need to find a way to turn this around – wish that I had answers, but I don’t.

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      • Posted by What brain drain? on

        There’s no brain drain from the north. We don’t see people going away to study and staying away. Just not true. If anything the brains are imported into the north. But people should be going away to study and bring back an education. That’s what most Canadians do , those that study. Going away to study is a Canadian thing to do. If only people in the north could go away to make their life better, then they would be doing what most many Canadians do. Look around the north, and see the people that moved in from somewhere else with an educated job, and look around other parts of Canada and see the people that moved there from the north? See what I mean? Housing is the same, I moved about from mommy and daddy not only for study and a job, but housing also. People , young people in the north should move where they would get educated, a job and a house. Stop this crammed quarters and blaming lack of housing. Imagine if we all were like that, I would now be crammed in with momma.

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        • Posted by Gonna Disagree With You on

          I like and agree with much of your comment, but I’m going to disagree with the no brain drain riff.

          There’s well over 3,000 Inuit who permanently call the greater Ottawa area home, and the number in Manitoba is growing rapidly, or was until Covid. In the last few years I’ve even encountered Nunavut Inuit living permanently in non-traditional places like the Maritimes.

          Perhaps we shouldn’t call this a ‘brain drain’ in the traditional sense. I’m confident that most of these folks didn’t have extensive formal education when they left, but that they picked up formal education and skills in the South and kept them there.

          This is not at all surprising and is part of the usual pattern. The real question is:

          How do we encourage them to come to Nunavut?

          • Posted by Observer on

            You want a simple answer? Don’t be Nunavut. Or else change Nunavut so you have the same access to education, to jobs, to entertainment, to basic services everyone else takes for granted.
            .
            Not everyone wants to grow up to be a hunter, but much of the politics in Nunavut seems to revolve around the idea that obviously everyone wants to be a hunter.

    • Posted by your comment is awaiting deletion. on

      This is the kind of discussion that needs to be had in Nunavut, I would love to participate if something like this was done on a podcast or radio show. The NN comments section is unfortunately constrained by space and over sensitive gatekeepers who think they are protecting us from “harmful ideas” by restricting what is allowed inside the square.

    • Posted by Universal healthcare – but only for the privileged on

      Healthcare is a human right, not a privilege.

      Speaking of privilege, check yours. I hope we do have more medical professionals in our communities, but that will take time. We can’t wait for that to happen to find a better solution. The average life expectancy here is lower than the rest of Canada. We needed to act a long time ago to address this, but at least we can act now.

      The Government of Nunavut chooses not to add positions because of the cost or space, or housing- not because there are no residents to hire. They fill all kinds of positions from the South when they can’t fill them in territory but choose not to make this a priority, requiring us to travel for services. Why?

      Nunavummiut deserve better.

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      • Posted by Not Possible on

        Really? Okay, how many locally born and bred dentists are there living permanently and working in Nunavut? How many phlebotomists? How many medical systems analysts? How many orthodontists? How many anesthesiologists? I can answer that – nowhere near enough.

        We will never be ‘self-sufficient’. We can work towards having a greater percentage from here, but complete self-sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable.

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      • Posted by The igloo and kayak on

        Where we live, is where we choose to live. Many parts of this country has no good access to health care, just like the northern part. But you know many people appreciate of boats and houses. I was brought up in a boat and house making community. People on the north made kayaks and igloo, the weather of summer melted the igloos and they now have me build their house. I also build a good boat, that kayak is pushed over to the side. Be thankful for your life.

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  4. Posted by Cindy Leishman on

    It is disturbing that a man caught Covid in an operating room, with everyone wearing masks and and the room being sterilized. How does that even happen?

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  5. Posted by Hello selj reliance. on

    I get sick when I see something like you are saying to about my people. Conservative people do not like Aboriginal I know how they think and do for my people. Health workers who are like you are and maybe you are one of them. Please stop complaining about my people. You make me sick.

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  6. Posted by Hello again self reliance. on

    Someone mention just after your comment about us Inuit. He said that we are not even given opportunity to be hired for the job. He hit the right spot. Even a housekeeping job for the Inuk at the hotel is not hired in Iqaluit. When I was home, I had applied for the housekeeping job not far from the housing office. I was not hired even with a very good resume. The workers were mostly Philippians and from other countries. MLA’s should be checking some companies to see if they are hiring Inuit first before they hire people from other countries. I see that is happening out west too. In Northern Alberta the hospital. I do not see Aboriginal with housekeeping jobs. We Inuit pay tax all ever Canada. Aboriginal are not being hired because they are also being looked down. We must fight for our rights. Some times manager’s complain about my people, and because he have relatives down south and want to hire them. What I am saying is not new so. what is the Government is going to do about that?. Human resource workers and the MLA workers should be working on how to hire more Native and the Inuit. We should fight for our rights all across Canada when this corona varies 19 is done.

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  7. Posted by Stats not a priority but people? on

    Stats are not a priority but we are talking about FIVE real people from Nunavut that the GN sent south for treatment and they don’t count as our people when dead. So sad. This is not stats. This is us. This is the transparency that we need. This is us. With transparency you can change the mistrust to the GN. It’s about us, the people, not stats.

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    • Posted by Uncommon sense on

      My two cents… I know nobody asked. If someone gets sick with covid on medical travel to access healthcare through NHIP for services not available here, it should count as if they are in Nunavut. They are there nly because they have to be to receive services from Nunavut.

      If people are on holiday,I think it makes sense to count as the province, but when GN sends you out because they can’t provide proper services here, it should be our numbers.

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  8. Posted by Thank you Qavavao on

    You are a good reporter and Igalaaq co-workers. I am sorry for your lose. We will stand up for our self.

  9. Posted by Educated Inuit in eastern Canada , yea right. on

    Brain drain my big toe nail. I never seen those migrating from our white north in any educated job role in east south west or anywhere. Tell me frankly where have I not been? I must be looking in the wrong places.

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