Nunavik family boats to Nunavut community after loved one dies; COVID-19 limits cut visit short

A family from Nunavik sailed 12 hours amid ice in southeastern Hudson Bay last weekend to get to Nunavut. But officials told them to leave or self-isolate for 14 days because of COVID-19 border restrictions.

Most family members returned home the next day due to border restrictions

A map showing the location of the Nunavut hamlet of Sanikiluaq, on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay. The Hamlet's mayor says it takes around six hours in good weather to sail from Sanikiluaq to Kuujjuarapik. (Google)

A family from Nunavik sailed 12 hours amid ice in southeastern Hudson Bay last weekend to get to Nunavut. But officials told them to leave or self-isolate for 14 days because of COVID-19 border restrictions, said Mayor Johnnie Cookie of Sanikiluaq, Nunavut.   

The family sailed to Sanikiluaq from Kuujjuarapik, in Quebec, to visit family because a relative had died. But they didn't get approval first from Nunavut health authorities. Nunavut's border is closed to non-residents due to COVID-19. 

It usually takes about six hours to sail from Kuujjuarapik to the the island community of Sanikiluaq, Cookie said, so this trip was challenging. 

He told CBC News he understands that people want to see relatives at a difficult time, but as mayor, he wants to keep his community safe.

The boaters arrived late in the evening and had to stay overnight. The family packed up and went back the next morning, Cookie said. 

"We want that family to get back home without catching any illness. We don't know if anyone would be carrying the virus," he said. 

Nunavut public health gave the family the option to stay and self-isolate for 14 days in Sanikiluaq, and one person decided to stay. 

All but one of the travellers sailed back to Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik, the next day. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Emergency family travel can be approved 

People who have a family emergency and want to enter Nunavut without self-isolating are required to make arrangements with the Department of Health, said the territory's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson. 

"It's the same whether you're coming by plane or boat. Unfortunately, in this case that didn't happen," he said.  

Patterson said people outside Nunavut can contact hamlets or health centres to request permission in special circumstances to visit family, and they will co-ordinate with public health officials. 

Public health centres can also be contacted directly. 

"We have done this for residents and non-residents alike, depending on the circumstances," he said. "They have to agree to isolate upon arrival and present to the health centre if they become ill." 

These approvals might happen for emergency child care or following a death in the family, Patterson said. Before approving any requests for emergency travel into Nunavut, public health will review a person's travel history to ensure that communities will be safe. 

"Our goal is not so much to keep people out. Our goal is to bring Nunavummiut and family members and loved ones together in a safe fashion ... and in a way that doesn't break the law," he said, because COVID-19 travel restrictions fall under legally binding public health orders. 

A case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the northern Nunavik village of Puvirnituq on Thursday. There have been no other confirmed cases in the region since early May.  

Patterson said it's not possible to set up a travel bubble between Nunavik and Nunavut right now, because some of Nunavik's decisions are made by the Quebec government.

With files from Toby Otak