Inuk woman counting the days in Ottawa isolation hub

Joanna Awa got special permission to visit her daughter in Ottawa over Christmas. Now she must spend two weeks in quarantine before returning to her home in Nunavut. Here's how she's been spending her time.

For Joanna Awa, seeing her daughter in Ottawa was well worth the 2-week quarantine that followed

Joanna Awa sailing off Devon Island during the 2019 Students on Ice expedition. (Submitted by Joanna Awa)

Joanna Awa, a 59-year-old Inuk woman from a suburb near Iqaluit, is used to the wide-open spaces of Canada's Arctic.

But for the past 12 days, she's been living in quarantine at an isolation hub in a downtown Ottawa hotel. The views are different, but she's been making the most of it.

At Christmas, Awa flew south to visit her 17-year-old daughter Jenna, who lives with a disability and is in care in Ottawa. Awa has to undergo the strict isolation period before she can fly back North, where there are relatively few cases of COVID-19 — and where authorities want to keep it that way.

Awa visits her 17-year-old daughter Jenna, who lives in a care home in Ottawa. (Joanna Awa)

Awa spoke to CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning about her life in quarantine. The conversation has been edited for length.

Good morning. You sound chipper! What day is this?

Day 12. And before I continue, mi Haapi Nuujaarpakka araagumi nutaami. I just spoke in my language to the people in Ottawa who are Inuit that live here, just wishing them a Happy New Year and hoping they are well.

You've posted about the best things and the worst things so far. What were those things?

The best thing has been the fast internet. In Nunavut we're on a satellite service, so things are slow, especially during peak times. Also, having my food delivered to my room has been fantastic. The worst things are the lack of sleep, and not being able to go outside for the last nine days now and counting.

You're not allowed to go outside? 

We can go in and out freely [but] we are monitored. On Jan. 1, I went out for an hour walk, which was great. Jan. 2, I went out for another hour walk, which was fantastic. But then [on Jan. 3] I started to notice people … in the street where we're allowed to walk were not wearing masks. With Ontario being in a lockdown, I was a bit nervous. It just became ... cumbersome for me, trying to dodge people. So on the fourth day, I just stopped going out.


So that was your own decision. But you've still been walking a lot in your room?

Yes, I'm wearing the carpet down! I'm trying to do at least 500 steps per hour, nine hours a day. And in between, I turn on my playlist and I either run around or dance around or jump around on my bed to keep physically active for at least 60 minutes per day. But the rest is pacing back and forth.

Tell us about the visit with your daughter. What was it like seeing her again for the first time? 

It was a bit emotional for both of us. We do Skype every Sunday, but seeing her in person, it was a lot of mixed emotions. I kind of kept it together the whole year that I did not see her. I tried to keep my emotions in check because she's very attuned to my emotions. We couldn't go places too much. We stayed in her special home throughout the 11-day visit I had with her. We had a great Christmas. We tried to make it as normal as possible.


Many people were told to stay home and stay in place and no visits with family members. What went into your consideration to come? 

I complied really well for the whole year because our chief medical officer of Nunavut was not encouraging unnecessary travel. I fall into that category. But by September I said, OK, so things weren't really getting better in terms of the numbers. And I said to myself, OK, I can't wait another year or I can't wait till the vaccine comes. I have to see her. She's a special needs child, she's unique and different from my other three children. You have to make an application to our territorial government in order for you to be approved, and luckily I was approved.

The view from here: At bottom left, the ulu Awa brought with her to Ottawa. Friends have been dropping off fresh fruit during her stay at the downtown isolation hub. (Joanna Awa)

Do you need to isolate once you go back to Iqaluit as well? 

No, I don't. Our chief medical officer said that it takes about 14 days … for symptoms to start showing. So that's my two-week period. But when I first got to Ottawa before I started my visit with my daughter, I went for a quick test that came back negative so we could have a loving and embracing visit. And then when I checked into the isolation hub I got a COVID test. And five days before you leave, you get a second test. 

What are you most looking forward to about returning to Iqaluit?

Fresh Arctic air! I'm going to [inhales deeply] the minute I got out of that plane. I don't want to kiss the ground because my lips will freeze to it, but I just want to do that. And I want to go to my lovely little home in the suburb of Iqaluit called Apex and just go, 'Hello, house. Did you miss me? 

Awa poses near the Sylvia Grinnell River outside Iqaluit. (Submitted by Joanna Awa)

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now