After all the adversity and cost, 80-year-old Raymond Ningeocheak will finally be on his way home to Nunavut on Monday.
The former negotiator for Inuit land claims has been living for the past year at the Ottawa retirement home to which the Nunavut government sends seniors for round-the-clock care.
But when Mr. Ningeocheak asked to return home to Coral Harbour, where relatives have offered to look after him full-time, territorial officials balked. They declined to provide medical clearance for him to leave the Ottawa facility at Embassy West Senior Living – forcing his family to sign a waiver and raise more than $35,000 to fly him themselves on a private Medevac flight.
“He’s been really homesick,” said Sarah Netser, his daughter. His wife died while he was in Ottawa, she added, and Mr. Ningeocheak wanted to be in Coral Harbour to support his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren as they grieve.
Mr. Ningeocheak’s plight underscores the difficult position of Nunavut families who live in remote communities without any formal elder care. Coral Harbour, a fly-in hamlet of about 1,000 people on an island in Hudson Bay, doesn’t have an assisted-living or continuing-care centre. The local nursing station doesn’t provide home care on nights or weekends.
Although Mr. Ningeocheak’s son and extended family are willing to look after him at home, the lack of higher-level medical care in Coral Harbour appears to have factored into the territorial government’s decision to deny Mr. Ningeocheak medical clearance to go home.
“It would be so helpful to see an elders centre back in Coral Harbour so they wouldn’t be sent off to Ottawa,” Ms. Netser said.
Nunavut Health Minister John Main said in a statement that he couldn’t comment on Mr. Ningeocheak’s case for privacy reasons. Mr. Main wrote that, as a general rule, if a Nunavut resident being cared for in a facility outside the territory isn’t medically cleared to return, “the Government of Nunavut is unable to pay or help the resident return.”
If elders want to go home nonetheless, they or their family members have to sign a waiver that confirms they understand they’re bucking medical advice and that the patient’s needs can’t be met in their home communities.
“It must be emphasized that Elders are placed out-of-territory because the available in-territory-care and support was determined to be insufficient to meet their needs,” Mr. Main said in the statement. “Repatriation against medical advice comes with increased risk to a client’s health and well-being.”
Manitok Thompson, a former Nunavut politician who lives in Ottawa and has known Mr. Ningeocheak since she was a child, said she believes his family is more than capable of caring for him in Coral Harbour. She regularly visits the Inuit elders who reside at Embassy West and, at his family’s request, she delivered the news of his wife’s death to him in person in November.
“Raymond Ningeocheak has a lot of support that will help him to live his last years in Coral Harbour, better than Embassy West,” Ms. Thompson said. “We have survived in the harshest part of Canada for centuries. We can take care of our own. We can take care of our elders.”
Mr. Ningeocheak’s quest to return to Coral Harbour – more than 2,000 kilometres from Ottawa – garnered financial support from Inuit across the territory, said Anne Crawford, the Ningeocheak family’s lawyer. About $35,000 has been raised through a GoFundMe drive and individual small donations.
That is enough to cover the chartered flight, said Ms. Netser, adding she was deeply thankful to everyone who donated. But the family is still looking to raise about $5,000 to buy a hospital bed and lifting device for Mr. Ningeocheak, who uses a wheelchair. That equipment will have to be flown to Coral Harbour on a cargo plane.
Ms. Crawford and a few dozen other supporters also held a silent protest in Iqaluit earlier this month to draw attention to the cause of bringing Mr. Ningeocheak home.
Ms. Netser said her family never intended for Mr. Ningeocheak to move to the Ottawa home permanently. The plan, she said, was for him to move to Ottawa for respite care, and to receive physiotherapy that the family hoped would help him walk again.
But while he was there, his health and mental capacity appeared to deteriorate, according to a formal evaluation by a non-Inuk psychologist conducted with a translator last summer. The evaluation was part of an application for Mr. Ningeocheak to be placed under the legal guardianship of Ms. Netser.
Ms. Crawford shared that evaluation with The Globe and Mail with Ms. Netser’s permission. Ms. Crawford also shared a version of the same evaluation form filled out by an Inuk evaluator – a teacher with a university degree who knows Mr. Ningeocheak well, but isn’t a psychologist.
The Inuk evaluator, who spoke to Mr. Ningeocheak in Inuktitut earlier this month, found him more capable of contributing to his own care than did the non-Inuk psychologist.
Ms. Crawford and the family arranged the Inuk evaluation after they noticed “this big gap” between the way Mr. Ningeocheak was being described in his Ottawa medical records and the observations of family and friends who visited him and spoke with him in Inuktitut, Ms. Crawford said. She believes that his Ottawa medical records and the non-Inuk evaluation contributed to the Nunavut government’s denial of his clearance to return home.
Ms. Crawford said “it’s rare that we’re able to capture so clearly,” the difference between how Inuit and non-Inuit judge the capabilities of Inuit elders.
“It was, in a certain sense, validating,” she said. “And in a certain sense, really, really angering.”
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