Silent protest in Iqaluit demands more elder care facilities and supports in Nunavut

About 20 people gathered outside Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly Friday morning, facing temperatures below -25 C, to show their silent support for a Coral Harbour, Nunavut, family that’s trying to bring their father home from a dementia facility in Ottawa.

The protestors also called for the government to provide more elder care facilities in the territory, and more supports to help families care for their aging relatives and community members at home.  

Among them was Sarah Netser, whose father Raymond Ningeocheak has been receiving care for dementia for the past year at Embassy West Senior Living Facility in Ottawa. 

Sarah Netser at a protest in Iqaluit Friday over the lack of elder care in Nunavut. (Mattisse Harvey/CBC News)

Ningeocheak served almost 40 years as the second vice-president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the land claim organization for Nunavut that represents about 30,000 Inuit. 

The family has already signed a waiver to bring him home, acknowledging that the health facilities in Coral Harbour can’t deal with his needs, and assuming responsibility for his care. 

However, they can’t get medical approval to move him, said Iqaluit lawyer Anne Crawford, who helped organize the silent protest.

Without approval, the Nunavut health department won’t pay the cost of his travel home, or for equipment like a hospital bed. That would leave the family on the hook for more than $45,000 in expenses. 

Anne Crawford is an Iqaluit lawyer representing the Ningeocheak family in their efforts to get Raymond Ningeocheak, a respected elder and former second vice-president for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. back home to Coral Harbour. (Matisse Harvey)

Crawford is helping the family in their discussions with the government and describes herself as an elder’s advocate.  

“They’re looking for an appeal or a second opinion to see if it’s practical for him to come home,” she said.

“He does have a right to return. He can’t be arbitrarily detained. But the [Nunavut government] is not willing to pay for the costs of his travel unless their criteria are satisfied.” 

Netser told the CBC News her father can’t get medical clearance because he is waiting for a neurological appointment.

It’s been a year, and she said there’s still no word on when that appointment will happen.

Netser said the family would rather he wait at home.

“He’s lonely and longing to be with family.… If he’s around them, I think he will gain his spirit back,” she said. “And I think if he’s eating his own country food he will gain more weight back.”

A growing number of elders — about 40 currently —  have been sent to residential care facilities in the South like Embassy West in Ottawa over the years.

Jack Anawak was among the Iqalingmiut at a protest outside the Nunavut legislature Friday over elders being cared for out of the territory. (Matisse Harvey/CBC News)

Jack Anawak, a former Liberal MP, was also at the vigil. He said he hopes the government will help the family in their efforts to move Ningeocheak home.

“Inuit have always taken care of their elderly so it doesn’t make sense when the government doesn’t take that step of bringing them back to their dear ones,” he said.  

After the vigil, Nunavut’s health minister told CBC News the department’s priority is always to care for elders in their home or home community. 

However, Main admitted, the territory has limited capacity to meet the needs of elders — an issue that he described as “politically important” in recent years. 

Protestors in Iqaluit are concerned there are too many elders from Nunavut in faculties in the South. They are calling for the territorial and federal governments to put more money toward long-term care facilities that can support elders with dementia. (Matisse Harvey/CBC News )

“I anticipate it will continue to be,” he said. “I believe that’s going to lead to improvements and greater services and facilities available in the territory in the years to come. And I look forward to being a part of that work and I look forward to seeing improvements made.” 

The government had already taken steps during the COVID-19 outbreak to allow families from Nunavut to travel south to be with their relatives in places like Embassy West to help provide them with care, Main said.

Main wouldn’t go into specifics about Ningeocheak’s case for privacy reasons, but said that getting a medical clearance is a complex process that involves looking at the patient’s medical needs, and the capacity of the family and their community to accommodate those needs. 

John Main is Nunavut’s health minister. Main said getting a medical clearance is a complex process that looks at the patient’s medical needs, and the capacity of the family and their community to accommodate those needs. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

“There can be things painted as black and white when, in fact, upon closer examination or closer discussion, there is indeed a lot more to be considered.” 

“The family’s right to autonomy is there and they can call their family member or their person under guardianship out of a facility when they see fit,” he said.

Raymond Ningeocheak and his daughter Sarah Netser. (Submitted by Sarah Netser)

Main reiterated his previous statement that, without that medical clearance, a family moving an elder back to the territory wouldn’t qualify for medical travel support. 

However, he wasn’t able to provide any information on whether there is an appeal process, or what would happen if the family got a second opinion. 

He said they continue to work with the family to find a resolution. 

Netser thanked people at the protest for their support and said, as of Friday afternoon, they’ve raised over $4,000 toward the cost of bringing Ningeocheak home. 

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