Nunavut's government reconvened yesterday for a special sitting of the Legislative Assembly to review its ongoing response to COVID-19 — and airlines were a major topic of questioning.
"Since we do pay a cost to the airline, do we have a say in their scheduling and service levels to the community?" asked Rankin Inlet North-Chesterfield Inlet MLA Cathy Towtongie, who is worried about flight schedules currently being offered in Chesterfield Inlet.
In the spring, when the Nunavut government negotiated an agreement with its two major airlines, Canadian North and Calm Air, it allowed the companies to make calls on scheduling, as long as they accommodated basic government needs like medical travel.
But that $24.6-million funding agreement ran out at the end of June, and new negotiations for airline support in Nunavut are still in the works.
In the meantime, some communities are finding that they don't have the flights they need.
For example, residents of the island community of Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, in Hudson Bay are not able to visit other Nunavut communities without doing a two-week quarantine.
"There is no way for them to travel to other Nunavut communities on a commercial flight without going through the South and a 14-day isolation," Hudson Bay MLA Allan Rumbolt said of his constituents.
In a letter from the Department of Family Services, Rumbolt was told that the lack of flight services to his community was partly responsible for a shortage of income assistance workers in Sanikiluaq.
Airline agreement in limbo, minister says
Nunavut's Transportation minister David Akeeagok says a new route is being looked at between Sanikiluaq and Iqaluit or Rankin Inlet.
He said he can't make any promises about further flight scheduling changes.
"We are in somewhat of a dilemma right now," said Akeeagok.
Having the airlines decide on flight schedules was only meant to be a temporary measure, he said.
We are in somewhat of a dilemma right now. - David Akeeagok, Nunavut Transportation minister
But negotiating a new agreement is hard right now, because the territory isn't sure what amount of money it has to work with.
"We are anticipating more money from the federal government," he said.
In August, Canada's departments of Transport and Northern Affairs announced $75 million over six months for airline services in remote and rural communities, including in Nunavut, and up to $174 million over the next year and a half, if necessary.
Any July-to-December contract between the Nunavut government and the airlines would rely on that money, Akeeagok says.
"We need the federal government to detail that $75 million and they also need to tell us what their 18-month plans are in order for us to make these determinations," Akeeagok said.
This sitting follows a longer break than usual, after the spring sitting of the legislature was cancelled because of the pandemic.
Questions to cabinet from regular members ranged from hotel quarantine services, to isolation expenses, to support for public servants, and the health of constituents living in overcrowded homes.