Northern residents will be prioritized for a Covid-19 vaccine once available, federal northern affairs minister Dan Vandal told Cabin Radio.
Speaking a day after Canada pledged up to $100 billion over the next three years to fight the pandemic’s economic impact, Vandal said the recent spike of Covid-19 cases in Nunavut had demonstrated the North’s vulnerability.
“They’re a high priority. We’re seeing more cases, unfortunately, in the territories – especially in Nunavut,” said Vandal. Nunavut had recorded 181 cases as of Tuesday morning. Most parts of Nunavut are expected to emerge from a two-week lockdown on Wednesday.
“We know northerners have circumstances that make them more vulnerable to the pandemic so we’re looking closely,” said Vandal.
The minister said consultation with provinces and territories on the rollout of any vaccine was now taking place while Health Canada works to approve several promising vaccine candidates.
“The military are going to be there to help us and I can tell you northerners are going to be a high priority,” he said.
Canada says it has secured up to 429 million vaccine doses from seven different “leading candidates.” However, the federal government has faced criticism as a lack of homegrown vaccine may see the country placed behind others in the line once doses are available.
Vaccine manufacturers like Moderna have moved to reassure Canadians that Canada will begin to receive some of its share of doses as soon as availability permits.
Money for NWT isolation centres
On Monday, federal finance minister Chrystia Freeland issued a fall economic statement in which she said up to $100 billion in the next three years would be needed to “jumpstart our recovery.”
Asked what that meant for northerners, Vandal said an immediate consequence would be “close to $31 million for health supports” provided to the NWT government.
“I believe the majority of that will go to isolation hubs, but the funding is certainly not prescriptive. There’s some flexibility there,” he said.
The NWT’s four isolation hubs – in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Inuvik, and Hay River – are one of the territory’s largest pandemic costs, eating up more than half of its public health response budget.
Most people entering the NWT are obliged to complete two weeks’ mandatory isolation. The hubs – usually hotels – are used when people don’t have a home in one of those four communities in which to isolate.
Use of the hubs is designed to protect the NWT’s other, smaller communities by ensuring most travellers don’t enter those communities until their two weeks’ isolation is complete, limiting the risk of Covid-19 spreading in areas where sophisticated healthcare services aren’t available.
An announcement later on Tuesday is expected to change the way those hubs’ costs are borne. At the moment, the GNWT pays for almost all stays at those centres.
The fall economic statement also promised steps toward a Canada-wide childcare and early learning system modelled after that available in Quebec, where childcare is available to parents for less than $10 per day.
In the NWT, providing affordable childcare in all communities would require large investments in training, staff, and buildings.
Vandal said such a system remained a “long-term” ambition and more details would emerge at the time of the next federal budget address, anticipated in March.
The fall economic statement included several million dollars in support for northern small businesses – to be accessed through the CanNor economic development agency – alongside extensions of the federal emergency wage subsidy and rent subsidy program.
Vandal said his government remained “in constant communication” with the mining industry, on which many NWT small businesses depend and which has suffered during the pandemic, with hundreds of Ekati diamond mine workers still furloughed.
The minister said the eligibility criteria of some programs related to mining had been broadened, while other requests from industry bodies were being “analyzed very seriously.”