North·In Depth

Security at Nunavut's isolation hubs contributed to stress, tension, gov't emails show

Security at the isolation hubs set up by the Government of Nunavut in southern Canada has caused Nunavummiut significant distress, according to more than 1,600 pages of internal emails and documents obtained from the territorial government.

'We are essentially jailed at this isolation hub,' reads an email from one unhappy guest

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

Security at the isolation hubs set up by the Government of Nunavut in southern Canada has caused Nunavummiut significant distress, according to more than 1,600 pages of internal emails and documents obtained from the territorial government. 

Security services have, to date, cost over $40 million, the Nunavut government told CBC in an email. The documents provide a snapshot from April to September 2020. 

The time and resources health staff put into managing security and other aspects of the hubs had a negative impact on Nunavut's already-vulnerable healthcare system, according to a deputy minister. Medical patients from at least one community, including cancer patients, began refusing to go on medical trips because of stories they heard about mistreatment at the hubs, including by security, according to one community nurse. 

The names and contact information of Nunavummiut who sent concerns about the hubs to the government were redacted from the documents for privacy reasons. CBC did not verify their complaints. The Nunavut government did provide partial responses to some of the specific allegations and other requests for information, which are included in this story. 

Since March 2020, travellers bound for Nunavut have been required to spend two weeks in self-isolation in either Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife before flying to Nunavut.

Many have struggled under what the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has called "severe and extreme" conditions at the hubs. Government staff complained that security staff were conducting illegal searches. The CCLA has called on the government to rethink the mandatory isolation.

Among the many complaints in the emails to hub officials, the most common was that security guards did not wear masks or properly follow precautions themselves. 

"I am confident that if/when COVID comes into this hub, it will be the security that will bring it in," one Nunavut resident wrote from a hub. 

"At no time will I be spoken to or treated by any person like I was by the security staff. I will not be intimidated either," one woman said in an email to hub officials.

"Too many adult Inuit who are normally polite, tolerant and understanding are being intolerably commanded about like 'dogs'" she added.

"We are essentially jailed at this isolation hub," she wrote. "Only nine more (perhaps?) torturous days left to go."

Others who stayed at the hub worried for all Nunavummiut.

"I am seeing people struggle here — strong people — and it's only a matter of time before something as terrible as suicide happens."

Over $35M to one company for security

In the isolation hubs, security guards are stationed on each floor, at elevators and outdoor areas and are tasked with ensuring those who check into the hub follow isolation protocols for their two-week stays. 

The $40.5 million spent so far has supported security at two hotels in Ottawa and Winnipeg and one each in Edmonton and Yellowknife. That figure also includes a small amount for security at Iqaluit hotels. 

To put that in context, new health centres built or planned in Nunavut over the last five years have usually cost around $30 million, like in Sanikiluaq, Cape Dorset and Taloyoak. 

A single company, Arlington Group Inc., which, according to LinkedIn was founded by Kevin Ling in 2007, has received most of the money — over $35 million, the Nunavut government said. The company provides security services at both Ottawa hubs, one in Winnipeg, and one in Edmonton. 

The government's senior manager in procurement, Mark McCulloch, said Ling's company was important to the government's pandemic efforts. 

"Their role has expanded beyond just security," McCulloch wrote in an email on May 13, 2020. 

The fact you are focusing on me personally is a disservice to those we are helping to get home.- Kevin Ling, Arlington Group Inc.

McCulloch went to bat for Ling repeatedly over the next five months as the company and Ling himself faced a growing list of accusations, primarily from health officials, of aggressive, inappropriate and abusive behaviour. 

In its emailed response, the Nunavut government said that "at the initial stages of the hub development, security personnel were given additional tasks to assist with administrative operations, such as supporting guest intake and departure procedures. Security was not authorized to perform tasks outside their scope such as those that required the assessment, diagnoses or prescription of a certified or licensed health professional."

Kevin Ling, founder of Arlington Group. Inc, a security company hired by the Government of Nunavut for services at its isolation hubs. (From Arlington's website, arlingtongroupinc.com. )
Ling declined to comment on specific allegations made against him in the emails. 

"This program has no doubt been a trying time for many who have been involved with it, and has been the hardest on those who, due to the pandemic have been forced to isolate thousands of miles away from their homes, families and culture in order to protect the large population up North," he wrote in an email to the CBC. 

"The fact you are focusing on me personally is a disservice to those we are helping to get home."

Ling also accused the CBC of focusing on him personally because of his race. 

"Since your first communication you continue to cherry pick one sided selective pieces of emails trying to create an idea that I am some large angry, scary and intimidating black man which I might find insulting if for not knowing exactly who I am," he wrote.

"I AM a person of colour, an immigrant to this country, now a proud Canadian citizen." 

The Nunavut government, in an email, said that concerns at isolation hubs reported by clients or staff are "immediately addressed." The email noted that many of the concerns documented in the emails CBC reviewed are from "nearly a year ago" and said "issues of concern ... have since been resolved to benefit our clients." 

'Aggressive and intimidating'

The rapport between Ling and health officials, especially mental health workers, got off to a rocky start. 

About a month after the hubs opened, the Nunavut government sent a mental health specialist to the Ottawa hub as an observer to recommend changes to hub operations. 

The specialist wrote in an email on April 28, 2020, just two days after arriving, that she had had an "aggressive and intimidating" experience with Ling. 

"He kept calling me 'mental health' and had no regard for my role," she wrote. 

She describes an incident involving bringing a crib to a mother on the second floor, and going with the mother to the outside area for a chat. 

Afterward, she said Ling confronted her for not following the process and using the wrong elevator. 

"He continued to get escalated and aggressive to the point that the guests across from us opened his door," the specialist wrote. 

She said she asked Ling a few times to lower his voice. 

"I wonder how our vulnerable populations are being treated when we're not here," she said. 

On May 11, 2020, Ling sent an email to health officials outlining the cause of tensions and inefficiencies at the hubs from his perspective. 

"The travelers to me are Priority 1 and the view that we have no care or concern for the travelers well-being, that we are being too strict or mean … is not at all a fair statement," he wrote. 

Ling said his team was being asked to follow the Nunavut government's hub operations manual and then being criticized by mental health staff for doing so; that directions from mental health staff were exposing his staff to legal liability; and that health staff were making recommendations without learning from practices already established at the hubs. 

Another view of one of the hotel units that's housed people traveling to Nunavut during mandatory 14-day isolations. (Beth Brown/CBC)

"Are we now to concede our situational decisions to [the mental health team] even if they go against what we would by standard practice do?" Ling wrote. 

But despite the operational confusion, most allegations against Ling from health workers focused on inappropriate behaviour.

On July 1, 2020, one mental health worker told officials that he no longer felt safe working with Ling, in part because he suspected Ling's staff were following him and intervening unnecessarily during interactions with those staying at the hub. 

The worker listed other complaints, including numerous alleged incidents of verbal abuse by Ling against other employees. 

In its email response, the Nunavut government said it "does not condone disparaging remarks of any kind against our clients and takes necessary action to correct that behaviour by staff or contractors."

'Prisoners' and racial tension

On July 8, 2020, a nurse emailed her concerns that "security has a general disregard for policy and the need for [Government of Nunavut] consultation on executive decisions." 

The concerns listed include security guards initiating alcohol management plans for Nunavummiut at the hubs without consulting mental health or nursing staff, buying cigarettes to sell to those in the hub, buying alcohol for some in the hub with government funds and providing "excessive" security presence. 

"Nursing got two complaints this week that security's presence made them feel like 'prisoners,' one comparing the experience to residential school," the nurse wrote. 

On July 26, 2020, an Inuk hub manager wrote that a meeting with Ling made her feel uncomfortable and like she was interfering with "his operation." 

"He basically said all Inuit are drunks," she wrote. When she tried to explain about racist stereotypes, trauma and addiction, the manager said Ling protested that he was misunderstood. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has said it's time to put an end to mandatory isolation for people heading to Nunavut. (Beth Brown/CBC)

McCulloch said in an email the next day that Ling, who McCulloch talked to about the incident, felt frustrated. 

Ling "agreed that such racist comments are not acceptable and that he is frustrated that his efforts to clarify in the conversation were ignored," McCulloch reported. 

"He was stating facts that they are having issues at the hub with some Inuit drinking," McCulloch wrote. 

McCulloch relayed from Ling that security staff receive verbal abuse daily, including "the N-word." 

'Threatened and bullied'

On August 29, 2020, another nurse said she had an interaction with Ling that left her feeling "threatened and bullied." 

The nurse describes an interaction with Ling wherein she says he raised his voice, puffed out his chest with his shoulders back as he walked toward her, slammed a door and called her "a fucking bitch." 

Eventually, in mid-July, mental health staff began leaving the hubs as hub managers from the government's new partnership with the Qikiqtaaluk Corp. took over. But the mental health specialist who was first to arrive at the hubs sent one more email outlining the "ongoing difficulties" with Arlington. 

Those included more accusations against Arlington and Ling of verbal abuse, undermining mental health's recommendations, withholding information from the government and subcontractors, and making false and absurd allegations against government staff. 

But the specialist also took aim at the territorial department of Community and Government Services (CGS). 

"It was very difficult to provide direction to the security as their contact was CGS, which limited our ability to intervene," the specialist wrote. 

"CGS has not provided adequate corrective measures to address this hostile, intimidating and aggressive work environment."

Patients refusing to travel

While officials from the departments of Health and CGS struggled to see eye-to-eye, people working in Nunavut's health-care system grappled with the extra burden of managing the hubs, and the implications of mandatory isolation for patients who needed to travel for care.

"The hub operations [are] having a negative impact on health to deliver other programs and has all but shut down the health programs," deputy health minister Ruby Brown said in meeting notes from August 5, 2020.

"Having well compensated contractors has not lessened our burden of responsibility over day-to-day operations," Brown said, in part about security contractors. 

One letter of concern came from a supervisor of community health services on July 12, 2020, who said she wrote on behalf of her Nunavut community. 

"Multiple patients have either refused medical travel or signed the [Against Medical Advice] documents because of the conditions being reported from those who have stayed in the isolation hubs," she wrote. 

"We also have a number of cancer patients who are required to go for screening and are refusing to go," she said. 

This was due, in part, to experiences people heard with security guards, the nurse said. 

"It seems to be a miscommunication that the people who are staying at the hubs are not criminals," she said, "but are patients who have been required to travel for medical reasons."

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