Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Northwest Territories is “doing exactly the right thing” by severely restricting travel to the territory, including mandatory two-week self-isolation for returning residents.
There have been five confirmed Covid-19 cases in the territory, which has not had an active case outside its Diavik diamond mine since April. Continuing travel restrictions have meant hundreds of tourism job losses, among other impacts, but are also credited with keeping down the territory’s Covid-19 case count.
There are parallels between the territory’s approach to travel from southern provinces, where virus cases are spiking, and the Trudeau government’s plan to keep its border with the United States closed.
On Wednesday, Trudeau said: “We keep extending the border closures because the States is not in a place where we would feel comfortable reopening those borders.”
A day later, speaking to Cabin Radio, Trudeau said the NWT was “protecting the health of citizens first” by operating travel restrictions.
“It has worked. Our priority and the priority must be to control and prevent the spread of Covid-19,” he said.
Hundreds of travellers do still enter the territory each week despite the restrictions, either as returning residents or essential workers. Most, but not all, are required to complete two weeks’ self-isolation in one of four communities: Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, or Inuvik.
Some residents and business owners have called for such measures to be eased.
Trudeau, though, said the best economic strategy for the territory – and Canada – was to control the health crisis, including through the use of travel restrictions if necessary.
On Wednesday, the territorial government extended its public health emergency – and, consequently, those restrictions – until at least October 27.
Beyond that, there is no indication the measures will be lifted for the foreseeable future.
At the beginning of October, the territory’s chief public health officer said she expects border restrictions and self-isolation requirements to remain in place for at least another six months.
Virtual tour of North
Trudeau acknowledged NWT businesses and residents are facing economic hardship and an already-high cost of living, adding Canada needs to “come back strong” from the pandemic.
He was due to speak to some of those affected on Thursday, in what his office called a “virtual tour” of the North.
“It has been a huge priority for us from the very beginning to make sure the North is protected and supported,” Trudeau said.
So far, that has included federal benefits and emergency wage subsidies alongside forgivable small business loans. The detail of future economic supports for the North was not immediately clear.
Trudeau said he was working closely with northern premiers and Indigenous organizations to make sure “money is continuing to flow through this crisis,” and recognized a “continued need to step up” in protecting the territory’s most vulnerable through investment in infrastructure, housing, and health.
“These are issues that are particularly acute for so many people in this Covid time, but there are also issues that have existed for a long time,” he said.
“We recognize the challenges are even greater than what we’ve been able to partner to build and respond to so far.”
Speaking to CBC North’s Trailbreaker on the same day, Trudeau – responding to the capture on camera of racist and dismissive behaviour from nurses toward a dying Atikamekw woman in Quebec – said his government would create new, Indigenous-centred and Indigenous-led healthcare legislation.
He also told the CBC his government had altered Ottawa’s approach toward negotiating land claims and is “working hard to get this done.”
“We have the will and we have the means to get this done,” he said.