Nunavut government imposes 24-hour security quarantine on northerners holed up in Winnipeg hotel

By | March 31, 2020

A few dozen people waiting to go home to Nunavut are under strict self-isolation orders in a Winnipeg hotel that they aren’t allowed to leave unescorted and where they remain under 24/7 security surveillance.

Angel Aksawnee, her mother and others from Nunavut are among those under isolation. They say they can’t leave the room without permission and a security escort, even though they haven’t been tested for COVID-19.

“We feel like we’re treated worse than inmates and people in prison,” said Aksawnee, who travelled with her mother from Baker Lake, Nunavut, to Winnipeg for medical treatment recently.

After her mother was discharged from hospital Tuesday, the pair and others began a 14-day self-isolation in a Winnipeg hotel.

All out-of-territory residents must undergo a two-week isolation before returning due to measures implemented by the Nunavut government Tuesday aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 to Nunavut.

For those in Winnipeg hoping to head home, that means waiting out the isolation period in a government-designated hotel. Security is monitoring residents night and day to ensure they don’t leave, though they are allowed outside with a guard escort.

“The monitoring is one measure to help ensure Nunavummiut return home in a safe and timely fashion,” Chris Puglia, a Nunavut government department of health spokesperson, said in a statement.

“The security component isn’t being done due to a lack of trust, but for reporting purposes to ensure the government can be as transparent as possible with the public that those returning to Nunavut are low-risk of bringing COVID-19 with them.”

Due to the nature of housing, availability of health care, and other social determinants of health in remote northern communities, some worry that if the virus emerged in Nunavut the impact could be devastating beyond what’s happening in densely populated urban areas to the south.

“These [security and isolation] measures were also frequently requested by Nunavummiut who were concerned about the government continuing to allow travel into the territory,” Puglia said.

Patients moved

Kivalliq Inuit Centre typically takes care of boarding and overflow hotel accommodations for people from Nunavut who are transported to Winnipeg for medical treatment.

But early last week, the organization learned the Nunavut government would be taking over the care of its patients, said Kivalliq operations manager Ainsley Bishop.

The Kivalliq Inuit Centre, located on Burnell Street in Winnipeg, helps provide boarding and overflow hotel accommodations for patients from Nunavut who are flown into Manitoba for medical treatment. (Google Maps)

Bishop estimates 20 to 30 patients were moved from the Canad Inns Hotel at Health Sciences Centre to a government-designated Hilton Hotel late last week.

Bishop said the Nunavut government assumed responsibility for the patients, including taking care of food, laundry and transport if necessary. Kivalliq is no longer involved, she said.

‘It would be catastrophic’

What makes the measures particularly strict, said Bishop, is that patients are under round-the-clock surveillance and aren’t allowed to come and go as they please.

“I feel really badly for our patients and escorts that are in this situation, being told, sort of relatively out of the blue, that this is what their life is going to be for two weeks,” she said.

She said she is of two minds about the measures, which apply even for people who haven’t been tested and don’t show respiratory symptoms of COVID-19.

“In many ways it feels unfair. The other side of that is, should COVID get to Nunavut, it would be catastrophic — completely — due to the close living conditions in communities, and there are many at-risk people.”

There are currently no known cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut, a government spokesperson said Monday morning.

“Their determination is to keep it that way,” said Bishop.

“I think they’re doing what they think is right to ensure that that remains the case. That being said, it is definitely more of a stringent policy than I’ve ever seen.”

‘We ask for patience’

In a statement on Monday, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said his government is trying to improve self-isolation for people in the south.

“This situation has not been smooth, but pulling all this together so quickly is not easy,” he said in a statement. “Safety is our number one priority, but we ask for patience as we sort all this out.”

Aksawnee said at first, the wave of patients moved to the self-isolation hotel felt they were being treated poorly by hotel staff and security. That’s since improved, she said.

Still, she said it’s depressing being away from home during a global pandemic, she said.

She misses eating caribou.

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