The federal government has doled out more than $100 million in Covid-19 aid for the North over the past few weeks and there could be more to come.
“I know there’s great needs. I’m not pretending this is covering off all issues in the North… if we can help some more, we will,” said Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal. “We’re going to continue talking to the premiers and to the Inuit leaders and the Indigenous leaders to talk about how things are progressing. We’re going to make it through this crisis in partnership.”
Financial assistance has been designated for Northern health care, food security, businesses and transportation recently. There are also national pots of money that Northerners can access such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for those who lost work, the 75 per cent wage subsidy for employers and aid for students and the homeless.
“During the last five, six weeks Covid has actually seized the actions of our government and it’s seized the nation,” said Vandal. “We need to take decisive action to help the North, who are facing a unique hardship as a result of this outbreak.”
Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq told Nunavut News earlier this month that the federal government needs to move “more quickly” and that a lot of announcements have been “patchwork fixes for the shortcomings of earlier announcements.”
Vandal noted that these emergency programs are being developed over the course of just days or weeks, whereas they’d normally take many months.
“We realize they’re not perfect. We realize we’re not covering everybody” he said. “But we’ve built in a certain amount of flexibility that when we need to make amendments and changes that we do that based on our consultations with Canadians and other leaders.”
Responding to Qaqqaq’s criticism, Vandal said, “This is the time of a crisis, it’s a pandemic. It’s not the time to try to score political points.”
He added, “If Mumilaaq has suggestions to make it better then we’re all ears and we want to hear that.”
Housing and healthcare
Other areas where Qaqqaq said the government must do better is in regards to limited health services and overcrowded homes, problems that have persisted for decades and which could result in devastation if Covid-19 gets a foothold in Nunavut.
Vandal said the federal government had already begun to address the housing shortage through its National Housing Strategy and 10-year, $400-million agreement with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, signed in 2018.
“There’s been some progress made. The problem is that the gaps are so huge that it’s going to take several years to catch up… there is no magic bullets when you have a deficit as significant as housing in the North,” he conceded.
On April 14, the federal government pledged $30.8 million for Nunavut and $23.4 million to the NWT to bolster health and social services during the pandemic.
Vandal said some of that money can be used to construct isolation units to keep Covid cases or potential cases separated from the general populace. That could entail converting existing structures, building new temporary structures, even tents, if needed.
“We’re prepared to work in partnership with the territorial governments in helping the treatment of the virus should it come up there, he said. “The minster of Defence is prepared to intervene and offer help if it becomes necessary. The minister of Public Safety, Bill Blair, is very engaged in the issues of the North as well… we’re carefully monitoring the situation.”
He also commended the Government of Nunavut for doing “an excellent job” and taking “bold measures” to prevent the virus from reaching the territory.