© Chickweed Arts/JamieGriffiths 2019

We shouldn’t have to be resilient

7 July 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A New Deal for the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

To survive prolonged crises, communities around the world need many of the same things: food security, clean water, safe housing, reliable infrastructure and accessible health care. But not every community has all these—and those in the Arctic face unique and additional challenges. The Circle asked Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Member of Parliament for Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut, what Arctic communities need to cope with a global threat like COVID-19.

How have people in Nunavut been affected by COVID-19?

We are fortunate to have no cases so far, but we know that if it hits, it has the potential to spread like wildfire. That’s because we have residents who lack access to things that are basic human rights—like adequate housing, affordable healthy food and accessible, clean drinking water year-round. So I think people here are frustrated and anxious. How can we ask them to wash their hands and clean their homes without access to clean water? How can we ask them to eat healthy foods all the time if that’s not affordable where they live? How can we tell people to physically distance in overcrowded homes? There are unacceptable basic human rights issues in the territories, and COVID-19 has amplified them.

What are some of the Arctic’s unique vulnerabilities in terms of the pandemic?

The biggest one is the distance people must travel to access health services—and now with COVID-19, there’s also the need to self-isolate after each trip. For example, in most places, you have to leave your community even to give birth. You leave for check-ups, then you come home for a time and leave again—and now you need to go into mandatory isolation after each trip. Considering the amount of money that is spent every year on travel to health facilities, why aren’t we building more health-services capacity within the territory?

What do Arctic communities need in order to reduce their vulnerability during crises like these?

We’re behind in a lot of ways. We lack the equality of access that we should have across Canada to necessary services. The internet and transportation are two key areas. The internet connections in Canada’s territories are poor, so we’re missing out on a lot of potential resources, like online counselling and education. With schools closed across the country, how are we supposed to get resources to students? The internet here lacks the required speed to teach effectively, and it’s compounded by the fact that more people are working from home. It’s also not sufficient to deliver mental health services online. And it’s not affordable.

When you look at transportation, the 25 communities of Nunavut have real challenges with connectivity. If you need to renew your driver’s licence or government ID, the application gets sent down south to Ottawa because the internet capacity isn’t sufficient to handle it from Nunavut. I’ve heard from many constituents who have had to wait over a year to get a driver’s licence or general ID card renewed. And if you have no other means of getting photo ID, how are you supposed to travel?

All of Nunavut’s communities are fly-in only. If you want to visit relatives in a neighbouring community, it can cost thousands of dollars for a family. People just can’t afford it.

Scientists have talked for years about a pandemic, yet most countries were caught off-guard by COVID-19. How can the Arctic build resilience to survive crises that are hard to foresee?

We shouldn’t have to build resilience. Nobody in Canada should have to “be resilient” or try so hard to achieve equality. I feel like I have to keep justifying why our lives in Nunavut are just as important as lives anywhere else.

I think our communities are doing a phenomenal job under the circumstances with the resources we have, which are still inadequate, unequal and very much under-funded. About a third of my constituents live in overcrowded and mouldy homes. If this was happening in Ottawa or Toronto, there is no way that would fly.

Do you think the pandemic is siphoning much-needed attention from the climate crisis, or could it open a door to a “green” recovery?

I hope people can start grasping the idea that we have an opportunity here to create a new normal. For example, as a result of this crisis, people who wouldn’t otherwise be getting benefits or being paid a living wage, like those in the food industry, are now being called essential. That in itself exposes a glaring problem—we need these individuals. We need to make sure they are safe, treated fairly, have access to benefits and can earn a liveable wage.

We keep talking about returning to normal, but we need to start talking about shaping a new normal. This is an opportunity to implement a just transition to a cleaner economy. If we come together and support each other, and work with one another, we can create change and determine our futures, especially as Indigenous People of Canada.