Imagine leaving your house for a doctor’s appointment and not getting home for almost a month.
According to Leah Audlaluk, this is a normal occurrence for herself and others in the remote communities of Grise Fiord who leave for medical travel,
She left home Oct. 2 for a medical appointment for her daughter. On Oct. 27, when APTN News met her, she was still on her way back.
The family travels from Grise Fiord, the most northern community in Canada, to Ottawa – 3,461 km away.
“Last week … the flight was too full from Iqaluit to here [Resolute Bay] and now that I am here we are stuck here because of the fog,” said Audlaluk at the airport in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
Her daughter, who is now ten, was born with a liver condition that required regular doctor visits. Audlaluk is travelling with a toddler and her daughter. She has another daughter who stayed in Grise Fiord with family who she communicates with by video calls.
Ottawa is a major hub for essential medical services for Nunavut children who have to leave the territory for care.
At first, the Canadian North flight was cancelled due to weather.
Merger doesn’t seem to be helping with service in the north
In 2019, the government of Canada allowed the merger of First Air and Canadian North to “support vibrant and sustainable communities in the North.”
But travellers at the airport in Resolute told APTN that ever since the merger, the flight service has gotten worse.
Meeka Kiguktak, the newly elected mayor of Grise Fiord was also on the cancelled flight. At the hotel, she passed her time sewing new beaver fur mittens for her granddaughter.
“It was really nice until a half hour before the flight,” said Kiguktak.
While she is outside having a cigarette, Kiguktak tells APTN that she has emailed the CEO of Canadian North and asked them to schedule a flight for tomorrow.
“There’s people here who have to get back,” she said.
She didn’t receive a response and there is not a flight scheduled for the next day.
Kigutak told APTN that the delays cause people to miss medical appointments and it also means some people forgo certain medical care.
“People don’t want to get stuck so if it is something minor they may not go. Usually if it is something major, they still go,” she said.
In 2022, John Main, the Health minister for Nunavut told the legislature that Nunavummiut who didn’t show up for their medical flights were costing the government $1 million every year.
On Nov. 6, Main told the legislature that there was not a requirement to rebook missed medical appointments within a certain timeframe.
“In terms of the specific guideline, or the specific timeframes that are spelled out in terms of rebooking appointments, in terms our current medical travel policy, I don’t believe there is one … but that is something that we are looking into,” he said in the legislature.
The airline can’t control the weather and part of the terms of the merger only require one flight a week.
The airline doesn’t have to offer more flights to deal with cancellation backlogs.
NDP critic for Northern Affairs MP Lori Idlout, the NDP MP for Nunavut and the party’s northern affairs critic, told APTN that northerners were told by the federal government that the airline merger would not negatively affect medical care.
“No one should have to wait over a month just to return home after a medical appointment, an appointment not available in the north at home in the first place,” she said in an email to APTN.
“When the Liberals let the airline merger happen, northerners were promised that flight prices would remain affordable and that passengers would not experience unreasonable service interruptions.”
Back at the airport two days later, Audlaluk found out that she was not booked on the next flight due to some miscommunication between who is booking her flight—the federal government or the territorial government health departments.
“I didn’t know that there were two offices to call … there’s Nunavut and Edmonton … so we got to Ottawa and they were dealing with us. I thought Nunavut and Ottawa were working together. I didn’t know,” Audlaluk said.
With two young children to care for, Audlaluk said she’s also trying to navigate the bureaucracy. She was not able to get on the flight.
Audaluk has now packed several boxes and suitcases, including frozen food she is taking home, back and forth between the small Resolute Bay airport and the ATCO South Camp hotel.
The Canadian North employees find some room in a freezer at the airport and store some of her luggage.
“This is not the first time. I am waiting to see what will happen,” she told APTN.
Two days later, she is back at the airport and has just found out there’s another delay. Weather again.
“The first time we came here it was weather, second time medical forgot to rebook us and today it is weather again,” she said.
APTN reached out to Canadian North for comment on service standards and what they do to help people make important medical appointments but did not receive a response. APTN has also reached out to Transport Canada but did not receive an immediate response.
Audlaluk finally made it back home on Nov. 1.