IQALUIT, Nunavut — Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the federal government needs to do more to support people living in Nunavut, particularly when it comes to the territory's long-standing housing crisis.
The Liberal politician made his first-ever visit to Nunavut this week, spending two days in Iqaluit.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Miller said overcrowded housing in Nunavut was "a vehicle for spread" of COVID-19. Last fall, a COVID-19 outbreak in Arviat, Nunavut, infected 339 of the community's 3,000 people and killed one person.
"For Nunavummiut, that's not a surprise," Miller said Friday.
With more than half of Nunavut's residents living in overcrowded homes, as highlighted in MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq's territorial housing report, Miller said people are left more vulnerable.
"Most people don't look at housing through a health lens," said Miller. "They see it as somewhere to live ... but they don't see it through the health lens that many people in Nunavut have been saying for ages and have been ignored."
He said remoteness shouldn't mean communities such as those in Nunavut are left behind the rest of the country.
"We have to make sure that Inuit get first-class treatment in a country that everyone looks at as a first-class health-care system."
Miller said the pandemic showed systemic racism affects remote communities like those in Nunavut when it comes to accessing health care.
With no intensive care unit in the territory and only one hospital for its 25 communities, COVID-19 patients who needed treatment were flown hundreds of kilometres to southern Canada.
"One case of COVID in the North costs a lot more than one case of COVID in the south," he said.
Miller also addressed Qaqqaq's scathing farewell speech in June when the New Democrat announced she wouldn't seek re-election. In it, Qaqqaq said she was racially profiled by security on Parliament Hill and didn't feel safe at work.
"I am horrified ... but that is her reality and that is what she lived," Miller said. "The House itself is a parochial, paternalistic beast."
Later Friday, Miller and Ahmed Huseen, minister for Families, Children and Social Development, touted the Liberals' budget commitments to build Indigenous-led shelters for people experiencing gender-based violence.
Applications for shelters and transitional housing will open in September, with funding earmarked for 38 emergency shelters and 50 transitional homes across Canada.
Aluki Kotierk, president of the land claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc, said the money is much-needed, but too little, too late.
"It doesn't meet our needs. We have a current housing crisis. But I think we're encouraged because this is the beginning," Kotierk said in an interview.
She said her organization had requested $500 million for housing in Nunavut, but the 2021 budget only set aside $25 million.
"We were very disappointed with that," Kotierk said.
Although it was Miller's first time in Iqaluit, he noted the Nunavut capital is a regular campaign stop for politicians from all parties.
"A lot of politicians come here, but ... I do want to see what challenges that smaller communities face. The farther removed you are, the more in the back of people's minds you are," Miller said.
Liberal cabinet ministers made another announcement Friday in the North, with Hussen and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland touting their budget commitments to child care and early learning in Whitehorse.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2021
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press