Feds promise $130M in COVID-19 aid for northern communities

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $130 million Covid-19 aid package for northern communities Tuesday in Ottawa.

“These are tough times, but we’re going to help you through them, set your community to come back strong when things get better because they will,” Trudeau said.

Northern businesses are welcoming the announcement.

“We need to keep these businesses running,” said Kirt Ejeesiak of the Inuit Business Council. “For us in the North, we don’t have the luxury of having a huge selection of businesses that do the same thing. It’s typically one outfit providing service.

“We want to be able to access the money immediately.”

Dan Vandal, minister of Northern Affairs said $25 million is going towards beefing up the Nutrition North subsidy.

“To better support northern families in accessing sufficient, safe and nutritious food by increasing the subsidy rate on basic and essential goods that families depend on,” said Vandal. “We have also added cleaning and personal hygiene products to the list of eligible items out of Nutrition North Canada to all northern communities.”

Trudeau announced that $73 million is to go to territorial governments for health and social services. Businesses with needs that aren’t met by federal emergency aid such as the wage subsidy program are to receive $15 million.

Another $17.3 million is to subsidize northern air carriers to help maintain supplies of food, medicine and other essential goods and services. Another $25 million is to go to Nutrition North, which helps subsidize the higher cost of food in remote communities.

Ejeesiak called the announcement good news. But the council has released its own list of what governments can do to help.

It’s looking for loans of up to $50,000 that are forgivable under certain circumstances, as well as a $250,000 zero-interest line of credit. It also wants restrictions on the wage subsidy program to be relaxed for contract workers.

Ejeesiak said Arctic businesses have challenges southern ones don’t. For example, supplies and materials have to be ordered and paid for up to a year in advance.

He’s still sorting through details of the federal announcement. Small businesses in the Arctic, he said, weren’t consulted on it.

“There’s been a lot of meetings, but businesses have been overlooked,” he said. “Northern businesses don’t fit the southern model.”

At a news conference in Iqaluit Tuesday, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said the money isn’t going to be enough.

“We did request it four weeks ago, so that’s quite a lag in getting our answers, and we didn’t get our full ask,” said Savikataaq. “We asked for $42 million and we got $38 million. That’s about all I can say to that and I guess that we’ve spent $20.4 million of our own money already to date.”

Northern air carrier Canadian North said it was still evaluating the funding.

“While we still require more details on this announcement, this is an encouraging recognition of the essential service we provide and follows our efforts over the last month to have the government take note of our unique role,” spokesman Dan Valin said in an email.

Federal New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh, also critic for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services, said the funding was good news but needs to be accompanied by long-term changes.

“That means investments in safe housing and infrastructure to prevent COVID-19 and tuberculosis from spreading,” he said in a statement. “Resources and supplies must reach the territory quickly.'”

Northern communities, because of their remoteness, are considered the most vulnerable if COVID-19 begins to spread to them.

So far, there have been eight confirmed cases in Yukon, five in the Northwest Territories and none in Nunavut.

Trudeau said the funds are in recognition that there are unique challenges in the territories. The money will enhance what is available to communities and businesses through other COVID-19 aid program.

With files from the Canadian Press

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