N.W.T. MLAs want travel exemptions, vaccine incentives in updated reopening plan

·5 min read
MLA Lesa Semmler pushed the territory to introduce a special travel exemption for people in the Beaufort-Delta travelling to Yukon. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC - image credit)
MLA Lesa Semmler pushed the territory to introduce a special travel exemption for people in the Beaufort-Delta travelling to Yukon. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC - image credit)

N.W.T. MLAs and the public will find out this week what the territory has in its plans for reopening and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Premier Caroline Cochrane said in the Legislative Assembly last Thursday that updated versions of both the N.W.T.'s Emerging Wisely and Emerging Strongly economic plans will be tabled before June 4, the last day of this short session.

The territory is still in phase two of their reopening plan, a year after its introduction. That means there are still restrictions on gatherings like funerals, assemblies and traditional games.

The travel restrictions put in place last March haven't changed, with few exceptions such as shortening the self-isolation period for residents if they test negative on their eighth day of isolation.

So far, the N.W.T.'s economic recovery plan is a short three-point document released last April. The territory said it's been working on the plan with several advisory councils ever since.

In anticipation of these two reports, MLAs told the government on Friday what needs to be changed immediately, and asked them how they will protect certain industries for the future.

Yukon travel exemption in the works for Beaufort-Delta

Lesa Semmler, the MLA for Inuvik-Twin Lakes, pushed the territory to introduce a special travel exemption for people in the Beaufort-Delta who wish to travel to the Yukon.

The Yukon loosened most of its COVID-19 restrictions last week, including the mandatory 14-day self-isolation policy for Canadians who are fully vaccinated.

"We need to know what risk measures are being used to make decisions," said Semmler. "When will we have an N.W.T.-Yukon bubble?"

The N.W.T. is in the process of negotiating an exemption for people in the Beaufort Delta, according to Julie Green, the territory's health minister. 
The N.W.T. is in the process of negotiating an exemption for people in the Beaufort Delta, according to Julie Green, the territory's health minister. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Both territories have "very different" healthcare systems, said Green, so they are trying to design a way to share who has been vaccinated between the two territories.

These discussions should "conclude shortly," said Green.

As well, some MLAs asked whether the N.W.T. will take away restrictions on leisure travel, to help small businesses in the tourism, aviation and taxi industries recover from the pandemic.

Green didn't answer, but countered by saying the territory approved over 48,000 self-isolation plans in the last year, meaning people in the territory are not "currently stuck" and can travel if needed.

The current recommendation from the public health officer, she continued, is to limit non-essential travel between provinces and territories at this time.

Prioritize recovery investments in mental health

Jackie Jacobson, MLA for Nunakput, pushed the territory to consider the lasting impacts of "COVID-19 fatigue" and other mental health issues on people in the territory.

Jacobson represents some of the territory's most remote communities: Paulatuk, Sach's Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk and Ulukhaktok.

The N.W.T. recently launched an e-mental health support for youth, but Jacobson said the N.W.T. government hasn't dedicated any money to bring mental health supports to smaller communities, who grapple with slow Internet service.

"COVID-[19] is isolating our Elders and keeping them away from everyone, and it's really tough on them," Jacobson said. "We need to work toward getting something sorted out, in our next steps."

Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby noted the long-lasting mental health effects are felt outside of remote communities too, as people she knows continue to struggle.

"People are already struggling with poverty and addictions. Now, with the vaccine not leading to the promised reopening ... I'm concerned people are losing hope," she said.

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, suggested sending out a personalized email from the office of the chief public health officer to those in self-isolation, that would include links to telehealth resources.

That way, he continued, people would know where to access mental health services while getting a better understanding of what is expected of them during isolation.

MLA urges caution due to 'uneven' vaccine uptake

The lingering effects of the Yellowknife cluster remind Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty that COVID-19 cases could surge again at any time — meaning that people still need to be cautious.

"We can't rest on our laurels," Lafferty said. "COVID-[19] and its variants are with us here and forever. This government has an obligation … to ensure that we're ready for the new challenges that the new normal will present."

Pre-planning is particularly important for the Tłı̨chǫ and Sahtu regions, he continued, where vaccine uptake has been 'uneven.'

Less than 50 per cent of people in those regions received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 68 per cent in the rest of the territory.

He wants the N.W.T. to consider giving out incentives for those who get vaccinated.

In an update to the Legislative Assembly, Green said the government no longer has a specific vaccination target.

Previously, the N.W.T. government aimed for herd immunity — which would mean 75 per cent of the population would be fully immunized.

"One of the lessons from the [Yellowknife] outbreak is how vulnerable non-vaccinated people are," Green said, as most of the cases were in children below eight years old.

"Having a vaccination rate is fine, but there are all these pockets of people that are not vaccinated that we have to take into consideration as well."

MLAs will take part in a public briefing of the new Emerging Wisely plan on Thursday night, leaving enough time to question the government in Friday's session.

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