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'Failure of government': Nunavut elder care needs to be brought home, federal minister says

Federal Health Minister Mark Holland was in Iqaluit on March 5 to sign a health care funding agreement. He says one objective of the funding is to allow more elders to age in their communities instead of in the south. (David Gunn/CBC - image credit)
Federal Health Minister Mark Holland was in Iqaluit on March 5 to sign a health care funding agreement. He says one objective of the funding is to allow more elders to age in their communities instead of in the south. (David Gunn/CBC - image credit)

Canada's health minister says Nunavut's elders should be cared for at home, though it will take some time to make that happen.

Seniors in Nunavut are flown thousands of kilometres south for care, often removing them from their communities, culture and language.

"It was a failure of government," said Mark Holland in an interview with Matt Galloway host of CBC Radio's The Current.

"There are many things in Nunavut that are not acceptable."

Holland visited the territory earlier this month to announce $12 million for elder care, part of $35.6 million recently announced for health care services in Nunavut overall.

The lack of access to health care services in Nunavut isn't new. In the territory, 86 per cent of people of don't have a regular health care provider. There is one hospital in the territory, and no beds for acute dementia patients, among other gaps.

Monica Ell-Kanayuk, former MLA and territorial health minister, describes the situation for Nunavut elders as "being colonized twice."

"Our elders, they're being shipped south, it's very strange to them," Ell-Kanayuk said. "That has a devastating impact."

Monica Ell-Kanayuk has been elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada. She is expected to start her new role once the ICC General Assembly wraps up this week in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
Monica Ell-Kanayuk has been elected president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Canada. She is expected to start her new role once the ICC General Assembly wraps up this week in Utqiagvik, Alaska.

Monica Ell-Kanayuk, pictured in this photo from 2019, says more needs to be done to provide care for Nunavut's elders at home. (Madeleine Allakariallak/CBC)

Ell-Kanayuk's mother spent time at Embassy West in Ottawa, a seniors' home where many Nunavut elders are sent.

She said it was difficult to visit her mother so far from her home in Nunavut, and she worried constantly.

"It was very lonely. It was very foreign to her," she said.

Her mother is back in Iqaluit, but Ell-Kanayuk fears she might have to return if she needs more care.

"I worry that she's going to be brought down again," she said.

The solution, Ell-Kanayuk said, can be found at home. She wants to see more home care workers and health care professionals from Nunavut.

"The more there are people trained from Nunavut … the better for our people," she said.

Holland said his announcement earlier this month aims to do that, but it won't happen overnight.

"Every day they should see material progress," he said.

Protestors in Iqaluit Feb. 4 are concerned there are too many elders from Nunavut in facilties in the South.  They are calling for the territorial and federal governments to investing more long-term care facilties that can provide support for elders with dementia, among other things.
Protestors in Iqaluit Feb. 4 are concerned there are too many elders from Nunavut in facilties in the South. They are calling for the territorial and federal governments to investing more long-term care facilties that can provide support for elders with dementia, among other things.

People held a silent protest in Iqaluit on Feb. 4, 2022 calling for the territorial and federal governments to invest in more long-term care facilities that can provide support for elders with dementia, among other things. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada )

'Very poor health outcomes'

The $12 million will go toward increasing the number of Inuit who work in elder care, expanding home care and supporting Nunavut Arctic College to increase the number of personal support workers.

Holland said high construction costs also mean that creating more elders' facilities in Nunavut is a "significant challenge."

"The costs associated with building in Nunavut are much higher," he said.

Holland said the goal is to let people age in their communities and not be sent to long-term care facilities, rather than be sent south.

"That creates very poor health outcomes," he said of sending elders outside the territory.

Holland also said the new deep sea port in Iqaluit will let more materials come in and will reduce construction costs.

For Ell-Kanayuk, losing elders to the south is a loss for the community as a whole. Inuit, especially youth, often seek advice and guidance from elders.

"We always say we'll go to an elder," she said. "Well, our elders are not home."