A lack of dental care facilities in Nunavut may be painful not just for Inuit who live there, but also for the federal government, which spends millions of dollars to transport patients to other places for treatment.
In the last fiscal year, Ottawa spent $2.6 million for travel costs to fly Nunavut dental patients and their escorts to other locations for dental procedures.
The travel costs were in addition to $8 million spent on the actual treatment, which included oral surgery and orthodontic care.
A recent Health Canada survey suggests that 70 per cent of Inuit need immediate dental care, but only 49.8 per cent had visited a dental care provider, compared to 74.5 per cent of southern Canadians.
In Nunavut, many Inuit with serious dental problems must fly out of their home communities for treatment, since there are no full-time dentists or dental hygienists in most of the territory's remote communities.
"Instead of caring for the people in their communities and bringing the care to the people … the people have to be brought to the care. It's a little bit disturbing," said Dr. Stephen Partyka, a dentist based in Iqaluit.
In many cases, dentists from southern Canada fly up to northern communities for a week or so at a time.
But for dental patients who need immediate care, the Nunavut government coordinates the medical travel, while Health Canada pays for it through its Non-Insured Health Benefits Program for Inuit and First Nations people.
Many patients are children
Of the approximately 1,800 round-trip flights that were made for dental care last year, well over half of those trips were for patients aged 10 and under who needed oral surgery or tooth extractions.
Janet Airut of Igloolik, Nunavut, said she and her three-year-old daughter were flown to Iqaluit last March because the toddler needed 11 of her baby teeth pulled out.
"You could tell they were starting to rot … right from the edge of the gum. They were turning yellow and then brown," Airut said.
The Health Canada survey found that more than 85 per cent of Inuit preschoolers have cavities or other kinds of decay in eight of their baby teeth, on average.
Partyka said while he realizes it may not be realistic to have dentists working full-time in every Nunavut community, he would at least like to see more dental hygienists in the territory.
Partyka said Nunavut parents also need to be better educated on the importance of making sure their children brush their teeth and "breaking the cycle that has gone on that says, 'Well, I didn't have to brush my teeth.'
"We shouldn't have to be making dentures for 17-year-olds," he said.