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'They're afraid they won't come back:' Petition wants elder care in Nunavut

IQALUIT — Aani Uqaitu hasn't been able to see her 89-year-old mother for six months since she was sent to a long-term care home 1,200 kilometres away from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.

IQALUIT — Aani Uqaitu hasn't been able to see her 89-year-old mother for six months since she was sent to a long-term care home 1,200 kilometres away from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.

Uqaitu's mother, who has dementia, is one of many Nunavut elders who are flown to Southern Canada every year for care. 

The territory does not have the capacity to care for elders with complex needs. Nunavut's Health Department says there are 43 elders currently living at Embassy West Senior Living in Ottawa. 

A petition to build an elder care home in each of Nunavut's 25 communities hopes to change that. The petition has received over 19,000 signatures in the last month.

"It's been really hard," Uqaitu told The Canadian Press. 

In October, a group of elders in Baker Lake, Nunavut, protested outside the community's elders centre, which closed in 2018. They held signs that called for it to be reopened.

There are elders centres in Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven and Igloolik. There are also assisted-living facilities in Arviat and Iqaluit. A long-term care centre is to open in Rankin Inlet in 2023. 

Manitok Thompson, a former Nunavut member of the legislature who now lives in Ottawa, started the petition with her friends after seeing more and more elders sent to the south over the years. 

Thompson said she spends much of her time visiting them at Embassy West and crying with families who have to leave their loved ones behind.

"I was shocked. I got very emotional," she said. "It's just not right."

Thompson, who speaks Inuktitut, said she regularly gets requests from Nunavut residents to visit their family members in Ottawa.

"I've heard so many stories of 'she died alone' or 'he died alone,'" Thompson said. "The spirit dies. It's too different. The language is not there."

Often she'll bring the elders familiar country foods like cooked seal meat. Her friends bring it down for her when they come to Ottawa. Sometimes she brings containers of it back when she visits Nunavut.

Uqaitu, who lives in Sanikiluaq with her family, has been through this before. Her father died at Embassy West last year, but she couldn't see him because of pandemic restrictions.

"I'm always afraid that it might happen again with my mom," she said. "She always says she wants to go home."

Recently, a doctor told Uqaitu her mother had stopped eating. Herequested that the elder be given a meal replacement formula. 

"She always lived on country food. She doesn't want to eat white people's food," Uqaitu said. 

She and her husband have full-time jobs and, like many people in the community, were not able to keep their parents at home. 

"There are elders here who don't want to be sent out to Embassy West. They're afraid they won't come back." 

Thompson hopes Nunavut's newly elected members of the legislative assembly will table the petition when the assembly sits later this month. She also wants the assembly to create a special committee to look at bringing elder care home to the territory. 

"This petition is a cry for help. The elders are not going to complain," Thompson said. 

"Leaving somebody is very, very difficult. But what choice do they have?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press