OTTAWA — The national organization that represents Inuit in Canada is calling for air transportation to be designated an essential service in Canada's 51 Inuit communities for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president Natan Obed says flights services in the North have already been "drastically reduced" due to increasingly strict travel restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Some commercial routes between northern communities and southern urban centres have been completely suspended.
This is having a major impact on communities that rely heavily on air transport for many essential needs.
"We don't have roads, we don't have railways, we don't have this essential network to get goods and services to and from places to support the base level of needs in our communities and airlines do that for us in a very different way than airlines have supported southern Canadians," Obed said.
Flights are the only way food, medicine and other essential supplies can get to all but two of Canada's northern Inuit communities in the winter and spring, which means these communities are deeply reliant on air links for survival.
Air transportation is also required to take patients who need advanced medical treatment to urban hospitals as many Inuit communities do not have doctors, emergency medical services or hospitals of their own.
Now that daily flights for medical patients have been reduced to a few flights a week in some areas, new concerns have emerged. For example, patients travelling south may have to wait several days before and after their hospital visits, but with fewer hotels in urban centres taking guests, the ability for them to find accommodations is becoming more difficult.
"These are all extended pressures upon different parts of the system that just barely work as it is and have a really hard time functioning when we put these added stressors into the mix," Obed said.
Several airlines operating in the traditional Inuit territory, known as Inuit Nunangat, have pledged a minimum level of passenger and cargo service. But concerns are rising that this will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain due to declining airline revenues.
"A lot of our airlines don't have the ability to just continue to float these exorbitant costs on their operations indefinitely and especially without any consideration of whether or not any of these costs will be reimbursed," Obed said.
"They have done as best they can but without further considerations and subsidies from the federal government, we don't know what is going to happen tomorrow."
Air transport is also needed for COVID-19 testing. Inuit citizens in many communities have been raising concern about significant delays in getting results.
Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, acknowledged that many remote Indigenous communities are experiencing a significant lag time for results due to the need for tests to fly long distances for analysis.
That's why health officials are prioritizing work on rapid testing kits and getting them to remote, northern Indigenous communities as quickly as possible, she said.
"The goal, of course, is to equip the territories or the more remote areas with their own capacity so they don't have to transfer specimens," Tam said.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in an interview Tuesday he already considers air travel an essential service for northern Indigenous communities and that the government is looking at a number of options to help the small airlines that serve the North.
He declined to provide details of this aid, saying more information would be released in the coming days.
"Obviously, with the decrease in passengers, it has put a lot of those smaller airlines in a bit of a financial hole but they do provide an essential service," Miller said.
"We're working on a number of options to support them and make sure that service continuity is provided, particularly when it comes to essential provisions."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press