Civil rights group says Nunavut's mandatory hotel isolation no longer legally justifiable

Nunavut MLAs and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are questioning whether the mandatory hotel isolation still makes sense with the current vaccination rate in the territory. 

Nunavut's health minister says isolation rules will change before the end of summer

A suite in the Ottawa hotel used as an isolation hub for those traveling to Nunavut. Since March of 2020, Nunavummiut have been required to isolate for two weeks in Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg or Yellowknife, before returning to the territory. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Nunavut MLAs and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association are questioning whether the mandatory hotel isolation still makes sense with the current vaccination rate in the territory. 

The civil rights group called the isolation hubs "offside the law and the latest science" in a letter to Nunavut's Health Minister Lorne Kusugak and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson. 

Since the end of March 2020, the Nunavut government has required most of its residents to spend two weeks in isolation in a government-run quarantine before returning to the territory. It has contracted hotels in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Yellowknife for this purpose. 

"Although the mandatory hotel isolation may have been justified at a certain point in time, our collective understanding of the virus has evolved significantly," the letter said. 

The author of the letter, lawyer Cara Zwibel, said Nunavut's situation has changed. There is more testing available now, Nunavut's vaccination rates are rising and she pointed specifically to a report by a panel of experts gathered by the federal government to advise Canada on COVID-19 testing. 

The report found that a seven-day quarantine with a test at the end "may be similarly effective to a 14-day quarantine without testing." 

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the mobility rights and while governments can restrict these rights, there must be a reason for the restrictions and the restrictions must be as minimal as possible, according to the CCLA. 

"In our view, the severity of the isolation requirements in Nunavut are not justified or reasonable at this point," Zwibel said. She encouraged the government to review its policy with these legal requirements in mind. 

Health Minister Lorne Kusugak said the government’s public health officials were considering all options for rolling back the isolation requirements, but gave only a vague timeline for when that might happen. (Beth Brown/CBC)

This is not the first time the association asked Nunavut to reconsider its travel restrictions. Last May, its executive director wrote another letter to then-Minister of Justice Jeannie Ehaloak, saying the territory may not have the right to restrict mobility rights in the isolation hubs.

Isolation requirements to change before end of summer

Throughout the spring sitting of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs brought up hardships caused by the isolation hubs, like the lack of Inuktitut services and country food, as well as the high costs to keep the isolation centres going.  

When questioned in the assembly on Thursday by Iqaluit-Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone, Kusugak would only say the government's public health officials were considering all options for rolling back the isolation requirements.

"I cannot give you a confirmed date on when it will be, but I can assure you that it will be definitely before the summer is over. It could be this week, it could be next week, it could be the week after," Kusugak said. 

Arreak Lightstone wanted to know specifically if the government was considering allowing fully vaccinated Nunavummiut to skip or shorten their isolation as he felt it might encourage more people to get vaccinated.  

About 60 per cent of adults in Nunavut are fully vaccinated, which translates to 38.5 per cent of the total population, according to the government of Nunavut's website. 

He pointed to Newfoundland, Yukon and Saskatchewan, which have all recently changed entry restrictions for vaccinated residents.

While Kusugak said he agreed with Arreak Lightstone that things are changing, he maintained that Nunavut is different. Those jurisdictions have roads, which let them access more health services. 

Nunavik, which has many of the same limitations as Nunavut, announced this week that their isolation policies will change as of June 14. Fully vaccinated travellers will only have to isolate for seven days before taking a COVID-19 test. 

If the test result is negative, they will no longer be required to isolate. 

Dr. Marie Rochette, the director of public health for the Nunavik Board of Health and Social Services, said in an interview on CBC's Tuttavik she expects most people will be able to get their test results in about 24 hours and leave isolation immediately after.

With files from Matisse Harvey and Alec Gordon


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