Skip to main content

Elders have seal for lunch in Pangnirtung, Nunavut on Oct. 19, 2021. Elder care will be a top priority for Nunavut's new government.Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

Nunavut’s new government has named elder care as a top priority for the next four years, promising to help more seniors grow old in their communities instead of in long-term care facilities thousands of kilometres away in southern Canada.

“Aging with dignity in Nunavut,” is the first of five broad commitments the government of Premier P.J. Akeeagok laid out in a mandate statement tabled Tuesday at Nunavut’s legislative assembly.

Mandate statements serve as high-level blueprints for every government elected in Canada’s youngest territory, where legislating is achieved through consensus rather than the pitting of political parties against one another.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Mr. Akeeagok said his government is “striving” to end the practice of sending elders out of the territory for long-term care.

“We value, with the highest regard, our elders,” he said. “Right from growing up, respecting our elders is the top thing that you do, so naturally that has been a top priority area.”

Nunavut doesn’t have any seniors’ homes capable of caring for patients with advanced dementia, nor does it have enough assisted-living or continuing-care beds to meet the territory’s demand for elder care more generally.

As a result, Nunavut regularly sends elders to Embassy West Senior Living, a retirement home in Ottawa, to live out their final years. About 40 Nunavut seniors live there at any given time.

In Nunavut, a push to blend traditional Inuit birthing practices with modern doula care

Nunavut declines to release detailed tuberculosis statistics despite calls for more transparency

The mandate statement vows to expand and renovate some of the existing care homes in the territory, encourage more programs that would help seniors to live independently, and expedite the construction of three new regional long-term care centres, including a 24-bed facility that is supposed to open in Rankin Inlet in early 2024.

Calling elders the “living memory of our territory,” Nunavut Commissioner Eva Aariak summarized the mandate’s promises to seniors in a Throne Speech that also pledged improvements to housing, health, education and economic diversification.

“We have heard the urgent calls from Nunavummiut to act on elder care in our territory so our parents and grandparents can age in dignity close to community and family,” said Ms. Aariak, whose job as commissioner is similar to that of a provincial lieutenant-governor. “We will bring them home.”

The mandate statement also promises to focus on housing and health, priorities that are intertwined in a massive Arctic territory of 39,000 residents in 25 fly-in communities, all of which are struggling with the worst infrastructure deficit of any part of Canada.

The government wants to build at least 1,000 new housing units of all kinds over the next four years, along with more family violence and youth shelters. The current housing shortfall means that many Nunavummiut, about 85 per cent of whom are Inuit, live in overcrowded conditions that contribute to family violence, poor mental health and the spread of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and COVID-19.

“Housing has been at the root of a lot of the illness and issues we see right across our territory,” Mr. Akeeagok added.

The situation in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut’s second-largest community and the planned location of the first new regional long-term centre, underscores the challenge Mr. Akeeagok’s government faces as it tries to build new housing and health care facilities.

Rankin Inlet’s council is delaying or halting new developments because its utilidor system – a web of shallowly buried and insulated above-ground pipes that deliver drinking water and collect waste water – has reached a “critical point.”

In a letter tabled at the Nunavut legislature in March, Rankin Inlet Mayor Harry Towtongie wrote that a total of 57 new housing units would need to be connected by this fall to a system that is already exceeding its capacity limits.

“This doesn’t even factor in the requirements of the long-term care facility or the new air terminal beginning construction this summer, nor does it factor in any other new development,” Mr. Towtongie wrote.

Nunavut Health Minister John Main said Tuesday that the construction of the Rankin Inlet continuing care centre is still on track to be completed by the end of 2023, with the first residents welcomed in early 2024.

But he acknowledged that Rankin’s overburdened water and sewer systems posed a challenge for opening the home on time. “It’s a good illustration of some of the systemic issues we’re up against – it shows the interconnected nature of the [infrastructure] deficit that we’re currently in,” Mr. Main told The Globe.

Mr. Akeeagok, 37, was elected to Nunavut’s legislative assembly for the first time in last October’s territorial election. His legislative peers selected him as premier in November.

Although he represents part of the capital of Iqaluit, Mr. Akeeagok is originally from Grise Fiord, a hamlet of about 150 people on Ellesmere Island that is the northernmost civilian community in Canada.

His government’s mandate statement was developed in consultation with all of Nunavut’s MLAs and its Inuit organizations, including Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the main land claims organization for the territory.

Mr. Akeeagok’s co-operative approach marked a departure from the previous mandate statements, which were usually hammered out by cabinet members.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.