The Untold Impacts of Covid-19 on Inuit Communities in Nunavut

Policy Brief by Alexander Stoney

DISCLOSURE: Catherine Waters is the mother of the author.


From the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus was described as “a great equalizer”. The view was that it could not differentiate between social classes, genders or racial identities. However, a year later, the early ideas of equality have been dispelled as myths. In Canada, racialized minority populations and the poor have suffered disproportionately [1]. This article aims to understand the initial impact of Covid-19 on Inuit in Nunavut.


To understand more about the impact of Covid-19 on Inuit in Nunavut, I contacted Catherine Waters of the Institute on Governance (IOG) in Ottawa who has worked for six years as Senior Practice Lead designing, developing, and delivering training for the Government of Nunavut (GN). The following is my interview with Catherine Waters.


AS: How has Covid-19 impacted your work with Inuit in Nunavut?


CW: For the past six years, I have worked on contract with the GN on two major training projects that are designed specifically for GN employees and Inuit in particular. The first project is centered around leadership training and the second focuses on public policy development. Both these programs are based on GN priorities, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (traditional knowledge) and Inuit Societal Values, and focus on the needs and aspirations of Nunavummiut (people of Nunavut).


These training programs were designed to be delivered on-site in Nunavut communities. During Covid 19, we have shifted all our programming to online delivery, to keep the momentum going.


AS: Why is this training so important? Why is it essential to continue delivering the programs during a global pandemic?


CW: That’s a good question. The GN and the Government of Canada are obligated under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement: Article 23, to hire Inuit for public service positions up to the proportion of Inuit in the general population of Nunavut. Inuit make up 85 per cent of the population of Canada; however, the proportion of Inuit in government positions is barely above 50 per cent.


No organization can achieve this goal due to the shortage of qualified Inuit applicants. Therefore, this training is critical to the GN to enable more Inuit to work in public service and to move into more senior positions and policy development roles. The GN’s Inuit employment plans, including these training programs, are needed to move toward the goal in Article 23.


AS: The Kroeger Policy Review’s 4th issue is centered around the economy and taxation. Can you describe the economy of Nunavut?


CW: The economy of Nunavut as a territory is very dependent on public sector employment (federal, territorial and hamlet/municipal governments), mining, and small business, including arts and crafts and tourism. There are special programs to support Inuit employment opportunities in construction, maintenance, the trades, mining, environmental technology, and fishing. There has also been a large effort to expand Inuit-owned business and increase the development and training of the domestic labour force to expand skills, provide employment and create a tax base.


AS: I know that there were strong measures taken by the GN to prevent Covid-19 from entering Nunavut. Did these measures work?


CW: When Covid-19 hit Canada, the GN responded very quickly to create a territorial bubble. Despite the enormous size of Nunavut, it was relatively easy to do that because all access to Nunavut is by sea or air. There are no roads in Nunavut or between communities. Everybody who goes to Nunavut travels by plane.


GN stopped non-essential travel and created a territorial bubble. At the same time, it allowed necessary travel, especially medical travel. Therefore the GN set up quarantine sites in hotels in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton where people stayed for two weeks before flying to Nunavut. Until November 2020, Nunavut was Covid-free.


The first cases occurred in November and were limited to a few communities and only in Arviat did the virus actively spread through the community. Arviat has now been under lockdown with a curfew since November. There was a fear that, once Covid-19 entered a community, it would be very hard to stop. But they have done very well at contact tracing and limiting the spread within the communities.


AS: How has Covid 19 impacted business in Nunavut?


CW: In economic terms, Nunavut’s economy is a fragile system that is dependent on connections to the south. The sealift is an important link to Nunavut to supply the territory with everything it needs to function. Every project that happens in Nunavut must be planned in advance to ensure that the necessary materials are ordered on the sealift. There are no deep seaports in Nunavut so when the sealift ships come in, they have to unload everything by barge. There are 25 communities in Nunavut and they all must be serviced independently.


A second issue is the external labour force. There are many people who come to work in Nunavut for a few weeks or months. During Covid, only essential workers were allowed in and had to complete a strict quarantine process. This limit on short-term external labour force has put some strain on Nunavut business and government.


AS: Are Nunavut communities particularly vulnerable to Covid 19 (both socially and economically)?


CW: Yes, they are very vulnerable. There is serious overcrowding in households which makes quarantining and isolation almost impossible. In every community, there is a health centre but there is only one hospital in the whole territory and few doctors. There are limited health care facilities and serious medical cases must be flown out. There are high rates of smoking, underlying health conditions and food insecurity that could worsen the effects of Covid-19. You cannot separate social issues from economic ones. Housing, healthcare, nutrition - these are all major factors in determining economic outcomes. Everything is closely connected in the North.


AS: How do you see Inuit communities recovering from the pandemic?


CW: The Government of Canada has made the vaccination of Indigenous peoples a priority. Therefore, vaccine rollout in Nunavut is moving more quickly than in other parts of Canada. The GN has dealt with the Covid-19 threat very well, so within the bubble that is great. But Nunavut’s economic recovery is still dependent on the recovery of the entire country. Nunavut’s economic and social well-being depends on the whole of Canada being vaccinated [2].




I would like to thank Catherine Waters from the IOG for agreeing to this interview and offering insights into the impact of Covid-19 on Inuit and Nunavut. What is clear is that Inuit communities in Nunavut are highly vulnerable to the virus due to the socio-economic conditions, lack of healthcare infrastructure, their dependency on aircraft, and the fact that the population has many underlying health conditions. However, the GN and the people of Nunavut took decisive action to respond to the pandemic and have successfully protected their communities.


References


  1. United Nations. “COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples for Indigenous Peoples,” 2020. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html.

  2. Waters, C. (2021, March 16). Impact of Covid-19 on Inuit Communities [E-mail interview].