Remote Canadian community’s request for direct flight to Arctic Nunavut territory can no longer be ignored says mayor

Pandemic travel restrictions has isolated the community from the rest of Nunavut

The mayor of Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, says his community is tired of having its request for a direct flight to Nunavut ignored by the territorial government.

In a letter to Nunavut’s Minister of Economic Development and Transportation, Johnnie Cookie pleaded with the government to do something about it.

Sanikiluaq is on the north part of the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay. There are no commercial flights between the community and the rest of Nunavut.

Sanikiluaq’s MLA, Allan Rumbolt, also wrote a letter last fall to the transportation minister, David Akeeagok, last fall, asking for a flight between Iqaluit and Sanikiluaq.

Akeeagok responded saying only four to six people travel between Iqaluit and Sanikiluaq a week for medical or duty travel. He said the most economical way to transport them is on direct charter flights.

Cookie’s letter, which is the second he wrote the minister, stated that four to six people traveling from his community to Iqaluit every week does not accurately reflect the situation because it excludes people who would potentially purchase seats on the charter flights.

In the letter, the mayor says many people asked the government of Nunavut in the fall to purchase tickets on known scheduled charters but were told “these charters are exclusively for GN [government of Nunavut] employees.”

Cookie says this an “elitist approach that uses taxpayers money to only favour GN [government of Nunavut] employees.”

Unnecessary hardships

He writes that many residents have suffered unnecessary hardships and expenses because of the flight paths.

Cookie says that over Christmas, a Nunavut Arctic College student had to travel South and stay at the government isolation hub in order to go home. The round trip flight was more than $9,000.

The flight was eventually covered by the Financial Assistance for Nunavut Students program, but Cookie argues it would have cost the government less if the student had been allowed on a government of Nunavut scheduled charter flight.

“This is not only unethical, it likely violates the rights of Nunavummiut under the Nunavut Act,” he writes. “This practice needs to stop.”

Cookie is asking for two commercial flights a week on small aircrafts between Sanikiluaq and Iqaluit.

The GN [government of Nunavut] will save money as currently they are paying the full price for two fights per week,” said Cookie in the letter.

He says scheduled commercial flights will provide the community with opportunities for economic development, facilitate proper engagement in cultural, educational and professional activities.

Working group looking at options 

In the Nunavut Legislature Wednesday, Rumbolt asked Akeeagok what the government was going to do to fix the problem.

Akeeagok said there is a working group looking at options for connecting Sanikiluaq to Iqaluit.

“One of the options is that we ask the existing airlines whether they can set up a route from Sanikiluaq to here [Iqaluit] with the government’s assistance,” said Akeeagok.

He says now is a good time to run a pilot project because of the federal funding the government is receiving to support the airlines during the pandemic.

In Akeeagok’s response to Rumbolt’s original letter this fall he says the funding for the airlines are to maintain “minimum essential access to remote communities.”

He says the government is doing this by supporting flights to Winnipeg.

Akeeagok said he will be responding to Cookie’s latest letter.

Only passenger on charter 

Rumbolt said he was chartered to the winter sitting of the legislature from Sanikiluaq earlier this week and was the only person on the flight.

Before the pandemic, he said he would need to fly to Montreal in order to get to Iqaluit. He says the roundtrip flight cost more than $4,000.

Rumbolt says since the pandemic there are only two flights a week from his community to Winnipeg compared to before the pandemic when there were three flights a week to the Manitoba capital and three flights a week to Montreal.

“It’s restricted people a lot,” said Rumbolt.

“I think it is time Sanikiluaq is connected to Nunavut so the people have the same opportunities as other people throughout the territory to visit other communities.”

He says that in the early 90s, there was a flight from Sanikiluaq to Iqaluit once a week but he doesn’t know why it stopped.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut airlines get $24M governmental aid for COVID-19 in Arctic Canada, CBC News

Norway: Scandinavian airlines cancel thousands of flights and lay off most of their employees, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Airline shutdown creates new challenges for rural Alaska, The Associated Press

Jackie McKay, CBC News

For more news from Canada, visit CBC News.

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