Nunavut Health Minister reflects on 'tough' 1st week facing MLA questions

Nunavut Health Minister Pat Angnakak, once one of the more outspoken MLAs, now finds herself on the other side of grillings in Nunavut's Legislature.

Pat Angnakak has faced more questions than any of her cabinet colleagues

Health Minister Pat Angnakak has faced a barrage of questions in the first week of the first meaningful sitting of Nunavut's Legislature (Nunavut Legislative Assembly)

Call it a trial by fire for Pat Angnakak in the first week of the first meaningful sitting of Nunavut's Legislative Assembly.

For years, the Iqaluit-Niaqunngu MLA was known during Question Period for asking tough questions of the government. But now as Health Minister, Angnakak finds herself on the other end.

"Health is huge," Angnakak said. "I'm trying to get a really good ground in it so that I understand and have a good foundation, so that I could answer more questions. Because sometimes when you don't know, even when you want to answer questions, you can't."

She said her first week was "tough" when asked to describe it in one word. 

"I think that's my priority when we think about the next few weeks coming, is to really get more of a grounding," she said. "It's one thing to read something. It's totally another to understand what you're reading and how it fits into the big picture."

Angnakak questioned the most through 1st week

Through the first five days of sittings, Angnakak has been asked more questions than any of her cabinet colleagues: 39, to be exact.

Only she and Elisapee Sheutiapik have faced more than two-dozen questions from MLAs, with Sheutiapik's 35 spread out over her three portfolios (Economic Development and Transportation, Environment, and Energy).

Perhaps emblematic of their past sparring, Angnakak and her ministerial predecessor, Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes, are seated at each other's former seats inside the legislature chambers from the previous government's seating arrangement.

On Monday Hickes dug up a familiar question line from Angnakak's days as MLA, asking her about the government's "model of care" review of Nunavut's health system.

Hickes, likely knowing more on the file than other MLAs — perhaps even Angnakak — asked whether the review was done, highlighting how it was expected to be complete by December 2017. 

"Yes, I was waiting for your question," Angnakak quipped, before replying it wasn't done yet.

Angnakak couldn't, however, answer when the review may be complete.

"I think the last minister [referring to Hickes] would know this is very complex, it's not something easy you can just put forward," she said, before referencing a briefing note on how a final report on implementing the model of care design is expected by March 2018.

Nunavut Health Minister Pat Angnakak tours the tuberculosis mobile clinic in Qikiqtarjuaq in February, 2018. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Health care access also a hot topic

Angnakak has also faced questions on medical travel troubles, Iqaluit boarding home issues, and efforts to fight Nunavut's tuberculosis epidemic.

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main also raised concerns on Thursday about how his constituents say they've been calling their local health centres after hours, to no avail.

Main said one case was so serious, the patient was medivaced out of the community after they were seen.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a person who has a health problem. Or maybe a sick child, not necessarily an infant but a sick child," Main told CBC News last week.

"You call the emergency number, the nurse-in-charge, and nobody picks up. What do you do?"

Angnakak replied to Main's questions on the matter, first apologizing for being a new minister and still "learning the ropes," and explaining how a nurse-on-call has a phone to take calls after hours, who assesses callers to determine whether the patient should be seen at the health centre, or wait until the next available appointment.

She couldn't say what to do in a situation where the nurse-on-call doesn't answer the phone, other than to call the office of Nunavut's patient relations and make a complaint — although the office doesn't appear to answer its phone after hours either.

Answers from the other side

Now being on the other side, Angnakak says she's getting the answers she sometimes didn't get as an MLA, but says it's also made her realize sometimes there's information which just can't be shared for one reason or another.

"I've really tried to say what it is, because if I were on the other end, I would hate it if anybody just tried to not really answer a question," Angnakak said, adding how she thinks her answers as minister would have indeed satisfied her former self as MLA.

"Sometimes transparency can be hard," she said. "You have to be careful that you don't hurt anybody in being transparent. Because we have contracts, or we work with different people. So even though you want to talk about something, there are times we can't. 

"Not because we want to hide anything, but because we want to protect some people. So, I find that hard sometimes because I really want to talk about the situation and what we want to do about it."

On the model of care review, Angnakak says the biggest surprise is how multifaceted the issue of health care delivery is.

"I realize more than ever now, after being briefed, it's systematic. It's not something that's isolated in one area. It's not just about not having enough nurses. It's across the board," she said.

"How we make changes in regards to how we deliver our health services, is a change that has to happen, and be supported across the board."

About the Author

Nick Murray

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.