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Nunavut residents want to see change at Winnipeg isolation hotels

There's now a second hotel in Winnipeg for Nunavut residents to isolate in before returning home from the South amid the pandemic, but some travellers say there's inconsistent rules, not enough outdoor space, and they shouldn't be isolating with non-Nunavummiut.

Nunavut's Health Department says it takes guests' feedback seriously

Lisa Oolooyuk says she understands why the Nunavut government is having residents quarantine in hotels before returning home, but she wouldn't want to do it again. (Submitted by Lisa Oolooyuk)

There is now a second hotel in Winnipeg for Nunavut residents to isolate in before returning home from the South amid the pandemic, but some travellers say there are changes that need to be made for future guests. 

Two women who recently stayed at the Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites in Manitoba's capital told CBC News that rules and restrictions in the quarantine hotel are inconsistent.

"The rules are changing daily," said Helen Ell-Natakok of Coral Harbour. "The government and security must not be communicating enough." 

For example, while businesses offering restaurant delivery can freely drop off orders for the guests, she said locals wanting to drop off country food and supplies could be accepted one day, and refused the next.

During a COVID-19 news conference on Monday, Nunavut Health Minister George Hickes said he was not aware of this incident, but said "there are parameters" for dropping off packages safely. 

Right now, the government is making country food available to guests. 

The Health Department said in an email that there's a country food program at a hotel in Ottawa. The isolation hotels in Winnipeg and Edmonton will receive similar programs soon, and guests in Winnipeg will have access to traditional food options next week, it said Friday.

Lisa Oolooyuk, another guest from Rankin Inlet who quarantined at the Hilton hotel in Winnipeg, says she is thankful that the government is accommodating residents and providing food for isolation at the hotels.

Why is our government isolating us for two weeks in an isolation hub with other guests from other provinces who aren't going to Nunavut?- Helen Ell-Natakok, Coral Harbour resident

But she also says the rules from security are constantly changing, and the changes aren't well-communicated to the guests. 

She wants to see more space made for families and children in the outdoor parking lot areas, so they don't have to stand around people who are smoking cigarettes and cannabis, or who are publicly intoxicated. 

"Some people have legitimate traumatic experiences with drunk people and they don't want to be around it," she said. "Those people are avoiding fresh air."

Oolooyuk said that, to her, incidents with disruptive guests that require security staff are a sign the government needs to take mental health more seriously in Nunavut.

"I respect and understand why we're doing it," she said of the isolation measures. "I hope I never have to do it again." 

This Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites is one of two Winnipeg hotels that Nunavut residents are staying in for two weeks before returning to Nunavut from travel. (Submitted by Lisa Oolooyuk)

Inuktut-speaking staff contracted to help guests

To increase communication and make sure guests are treated well, the Qikiqtaaluk Corporation is contracted by the territory to support the guests in all isolation hubs. Qikiataaluk Corporation is the business arm of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which works to protect Inuit rights.

As of Monday, it had two bilingual Inuktut-English representatives for the hubs in Winnipeg, and one each in Edmonton and Ottawa.

Minister Hickes says it's become a full-time job to communicate between the government and guests — for example, by making sure people knew what their mental health and travel supports are, and making sure language needs are met.

This contract allows Health Department staff to focus on their work, he said.

The Hilton Winnipeg Airport Suites said it will not comment to media. 

Its reservations department is still taking bookings for regular travellers — when Ell-Natakok learned there were guests staying at the hotel who are not part of the Nunavut quarantine program, she said she was "furious."

"Why is our government isolating us for two weeks in an isolation hub with other guests from other provinces who aren't going to Nunavut?" she said. "You are isolating us for two weeks, yet I could be exposed tomorrow." 

Ell-Natakok says she was cautious leaving her room, and only touched doorknobs and elevator buttons with a tissue or her keys. 

Health Minister George Hickes says a very small percentage of people are causing the majority of issues with alcohol or noise at the isolation hotel. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Nunavut's Health Department says it takes guests' feedback seriously. 

Hickes says a very small percentage of people are causing the majority of issues with alcohol or noise. 

The second isolation hotel was opened because the wait list for the quarantine hotel was as long as three weeks. The government said it needed to prioritize medical travellers.

"We are anticipating needing that hub until the end of the isolation period," Hickes said.

The government has shelved the idea of using Iqaluit as a temporary hub to eliminate the backlog in the South. 

"Our first choice is to keep people in isolation outside of the territory," Hickes said. 

With files from Toby Otak and Jackie McKay

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