This is page numbers 739 - 766 of the Hansard for the 19th Assembly, 2nd Session. The original version can be accessed on the Legislative Assembly's website or by contacting the Legislative Assembly Library. The word of the day was health.

Topics

Members Present

Hon. Frederick Blake Jr, Hon. Paulie Chinna, Ms. Cleveland, Hon. Caroline Cochrane, Ms. Green, Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Lafferty, Mr. Norn, Mr. O'Reilly, Ms. Semmler, Hon. R.J. Simpson, Mr. Rocky Simpson, Hon. Diane Thom, Hon. Shane Thompson, Hon. Caroline Wawzonek

The House met at 10:00 a.m.

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Prayer
Prayer

Page 739

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Colleagues, thank you for being here today. We were scheduled for an extended adjournment on Friday of last week, and I know that we were all looking forward to returning to our constituencies over the weekend.

On Friday, I took the unusual step of recalling the House to sit today. This was not a decision that I made hastily, but with careful consideration following my discussions with the Executive Council and Members of the Legislative Assembly.

The situation we are currently facing with the COVID-19 virus is very fluid. Each and every day we learn more about this virus.

Colleagues, following the passage of an interim appropriation bill today, this House will adjourn until May 26th, or an earlier date to be determined later, to complete the review of the government's proposed budget and continue the work of this House. This recess will free up government resources and personnel to focus on preparing for and responding to the potential spread of COVID-19 to the Northwest Territories. It will also help ensure that we do not expose Members, staff, Pages, and interpreters to unnecessary risk. I remain steadfast in my belief that this is in the best interest of all residents of the Northwest Territories.

Now, Colleagues, it is my duty to advise the House that I have received the following message from the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. It reads:

Dear Mr. Speaker, I wish to advise that I recommend to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories the passage of:

  • Interim Appropriation Act (Operations Expenditures) 2020-2021

During the 2nd Session of the 19th Legislative Assembly. Yours Truly, Margaret M. Thom, Commissioner.

Thank you, colleagues. Item 2, Ministers' statements. Honourable Premier.

Minister's Statement 38-19(2): COVID-19 preparedness
Ministers' Statements

Page 739

Caroline Cochrane Range Lake

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Members of this Assembly for taking the step of suspending its current sitting after today to allow Cabinet and the public service greater opportunity to prepare for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Although there remains no reported cases in the NWT, our government continues to prepare for the impact of this pandemic. Hour to hour, we are monitoring the state of the COVID-19 situation as it continues to evolve. I want to share with this Assembly some of the actions and planning that is under way.

Our health system has been preparing over the last few months, as the concern over this new virus became known. This planning has included securing additional supplies and preparing staff and facilities to respond to an outbreak. Our health officials have also been working with our partners, including the Government of Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, to stay current with the most recent information and recommendations about this disease.

Of these discussions, our Chief Public Health Officer has been working tirelessly with her colleagues to provide the best available advice to officials and the public about how to identify and care for those infected and prevent the spread of this disease. One thing we know is that we can slow the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate its impact on our communities if everyone follows the advice of our Chief Public Health Officer and takes the necessary precautions to protect themselves and most importantly to safeguard those who may be more vulnerable, including our elders.

We are fortunate that our healthcare system has not yet had to face any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the NWT, but we know that this virus is spreading and we all need to take personal steps to slow down the spread of this illness. By slowing the rate of infection, our health system will be better able to effectively respond to this pandemic.

On Friday, our Health and Social Services Minister thanked our many healthcare professionals for their dedication and service and, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of all of us here in this Assembly, and on behalf of the people of the Northwest Territories, I also want to thank them for their efforts to look after us all. We know their work will become more challenging as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread.

Over the weekend, we have also taken the extraordinary step of asking our healthcare professionals to avoid any unnecessary travel outside of the Northwest Territories. This will prevent exposure and help avoid the potential requirements for isolation and will require that the NWT health system can maintain as much operational readiness as possible to manage the spread of this disease.

Mr. Speaker, work to prepare for a COVID-19 pandemic in the Northwest Territories began even before the World Health Organization declared one. In addition to the measures our health system has put in place to identify, prevent, and control the spread of infectious disease, our government also has dedicated resources and procedures to manage emergencies.

Our Department of Municipal and Community Affairs includes the Emergency Management Organization established under the Emergency Management Act. Its role is, in part, to lead the Government of the Northwest Territories in the coordination of emergency management activities, support emergency management activities of local authorities, and coordinate and assist in the response of governments and public agencies. The head of the Emergency Management Office also chairs the Territorial Planning Committee, which works with community governments and other key partners to ensure readiness and to respond to emergencies.

Again, although we have yet to face a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Northwest Territories, we have taken the proactive step of activating an Emergency Operations Centre under MACA's leadership, as of March 13, 2020, and work will continue to assist all communities in the Northwest Territories to help prevent or manage any COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr. Speaker, later this week, I will be convening a virtual meeting with community governments and Indigenous governments to share the latest information we have on our readiness and our plans. We will continue to meet regularly with them to work together to eliminate any gaps in our plans and to support our efforts.

We know that many communities and jurisdictions in Canada and throughout the world have made the decision to temporarily close schools as result of the pandemic. The Minister of Education, Culture and Employment has consulted with the Chief Public Health Officer on this and has received the advice today to close NWT schools until after Easter. Later today, the Minister will be convening a teleconference with all district education authorities to discuss this direction and how best to support school teachers, staff, and students as they return from spring break travel.

Mr. Speaker, as we prepare for this pandemic, the health and safety of our people is paramount. Every Government of the Northwest Territories department and agency has been tasked with identifying and planning for the continuation of essential services. If a large number of our employees are required to self-isolate to prevent the further spread of the virus, we know that government services may face a significant disruption. It is critical that key services remain supported, and we are taking the proper steps to deal with a scenario where we have dramatically fewer available employees.

All departments and agencies have been updating their business continuity plans, and later this week these plans will be finalized and validated with tabletop exercises to ensure potential gaps have been identified and can be addressed. We know that the work of our government touches upon the lives of the people we serve in important ways and that we need to make sure that there is as little disruption as possible should we find that many of our employees have to be isolated to care for themselves or others. Our planning will also consider how best to manage the NWT supply chain to help ensure that residents and businesses continue to receive essential services.

Mr. Speaker, it is important to state again that the NWT has no reported cases of COVID-19 and that the risk of contracting the disease in the NWT remains low today. This does not mean that we can rest easy. We must be prepared to take preventative actions now.

In recent days, we have seen many jurisdictions implement new measures in response to having the virus already spreading within their borders. We have the ability to take measures sooner than others, to better manage the risk. This will mean some disruption in travel for residents coming home, who will need to self-isolate, and tourists, who will have to postpone their visits the NWT.

It is critically important that all residents of and visitors to the NWT take precautions and follow the advice of our Chief Public Health Officer. As our preparations continue, it is also critical that our community partners work with MACA's Emergency Operations Centre to ensure plans are in place and that every effort is made to minimize the risk and manage the impacts of this pandemic.

We are implementing the best approaches available to slow and manage the spread of COVID-19. While we must not panic, we do have to take precautions.

I want to thank all residents of the Northwest Territories for their understanding as we direct more of the work of our government to managing this issue, we and acknowledge that some of this effort will necessarily come at the expense of other priorities. However, protecting our most vulnerable from this pandemic is our most important priority, and we are working closely with our service providers to develop plans.

Mr. Speaker, we know that the consequences of this pandemic are already having an impact on our economy and that many of our residents and businesses will need support. These concerns have been raised with the Prime Minister, and I am very encouraged that there is clearly recognition that new federal programs and investments will be required to protect our economy. Additional options to provide support to our residents and businesses are being actively considered.

Information on the spread of this new virus and knowledge of how best to manage its impacts have been changing rapidly. That is why we are working closely with our partners from across all jurisdictions to stay up to date on the latest information. We will be providing daily reports and have set up a single portal for more information at www.gov.nt.ca, and click on the "corona virus" feature box. This website is being updated as new information becomes available.

Mr. Speaker, we recognize that people are concerned, but I want to remind everyone that we can all take practical steps to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We will continue to update our residents, our communities, and Indigenous government partners, and I strongly urge everyone to check our website frequently and heed the advice of the Chief Public Health Officer and our Emergency Management Office as we work together to safeguard our friends, families and our elders. Mahsi, Mr. Speaker.

Minister's Statement 38-19(2): COVID-19 preparedness
Ministers' Statements

Page 740

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Honourable Premier. Ministers' statements. Minister of Health and Social Services.

Minister's Statement 39-19(2): Covid-19 Update
Ministers' Statements

Page 740

Diane Thom Inuvik Boot Lake

Mr. Speaker, I would like to provide Members and the public with an update on Northwest Territories efforts in containing the spread of COVID-19 and assure everyone that their health and safety is the number one priority of our government.

Currently, we have zero cases confirmed in the Northwest Territories. Our Chief Public Health Officer remains confident our residents are currently at a low risk of infection. We also know that, world-wide, roughly 80 percent of people infected get only mild symptoms.

We are working very hard to slow the spread of the infection and know that everyone has a stake in doing their part. We have been promoting good respiratory practices. That means that you and your family members should stay home if you are sick and keep your distance from elders and people who may have underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to infection. Wash your hands frequently, turn and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing with your elbow, and make sure that they are two metres apart in all social situations. This way, we can slow the spread together.

Mr. Speaker, the Chief Public Health Officer is leading our public health response planning while the GNWT's Territorial Planning Committee is leading the broader, all-of-government emergency response planning. Our health system's Emergency Operations Centre has been activated. This allows us to coordinate rapid COVID-19 system planning and preparation. A Northwest Territories COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Guide and Checklist is guiding our system preparations. We currently have a sufficient stockpile of personal protective equipment for frontline workers and will continue to track this. Community health centres and hospitals are completing their planning and preparations, and testing kits are in every community.

Mr. Speaker, NWT health professionals are testing residents and visitors for COVID-19 who present flu-like symptoms and who have travelled outside the NWT recently, regardless of where they have travelled. This action permits us to take prompt action should a positive COVID-19 case be confirmed. We began this enhanced testing before coronavirus was declared a pandemic, and this is helping us.

The Chief Public Health Officer issues regular public health alerts to frontline health professionals. These alerts reinforce the need for heightened awareness and the use of best practices for communicable disease control at the local level. Frontline staff and management are also ensuring protections and protocols are in place for workers and others within health facilities to reduce the spread of the virus in those settings.

The Chief Public Health Officer has communicated to all NWT schools and daycares, advising on travel outside the Northwest Territories, planned international travel, and general advice to prevent infection. These letters were sent to parents and caregivers and are being updated.

Long-term care facilities have been provided information on precautions, protections, and protocols from the Chief Public Health Officer via our health authorities, to all healthcare facilities and healthcare professionals. This advice includes following usual flu-season-visitors' hand-washing protocols and staying away if sick.

The Chief Public Health Officer is also assessing all mass gatherings to determine if they should proceed. Most large indoor events have been cancelled, and non-essential travel and attendance at conferences by GNWT employees has been suspended.

Over the weekend, the Chief Public Health Officer issued new advice to our residents, in keeping with the latest guidance from the federal government. We are strongly advising all travellers who have arrived or are arriving from international destinations to now self-isolate for 14 days. These measures are necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.

Mr. Speaker, I know there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety among us all. There is no denying that COVID-19 is a significant challenge around the world and in the Northwest Territories, but it is important to remember that, by following advice and working together, we can manage this together.

The Chief Public Health Officer and the department are committed to providing residents with up-to-date information and will advise the public when confirmed cases have been identified in the Northwest Territories. They are using every available means to communicate with residents, in all official languages, to provide the most current information so you know what is going on and what you need to do.

Mr. Speaker, Northerners are known for their strength, resiliency, and strong sense of family and community. I know that it is those qualities that we can draw on to keep our communities and our territory healthy. Staying informed and following the advice provided by our health officials will help us all manage this unprecedented situation together.

Mr. Speaker, I want to speak directly to all of our healthcare workers across our system. Thank you for your hard work and dedication in making sure we are in the best place possible to respond to COVID-19. I recognize that there are many challenges ahead and know that you will continue to serve our residents, as you always have, with professionalism, compassion, and commitment.

For more information on COVID-19, please refer to the Government of the Northwest Territories website. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Minister's Statement 39-19(2): Covid-19 Update
Ministers' Statements

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The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Minister. Ministers' statements. Item 3, Members' statements. Member for Kam Lake.

Working Together to Contain COVID-19
Members' Statements

Page 740

Caitlin Cleveland Kam Lake

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I stand today to first thank Health and Social Services Department and authorities staff for the endless hours they have put in to protect the North from COVID-19. In addition, I would like to thank the other departments that have worked all weekend long to ensure that we have plans in place and continuity of service. Second, I would also like to thank northern businesses who are doing their part to keep Northerners safe while trying to keep businesses running as normally as possible.

I say "normal," Mr. Speaker, but these are not normal times. While businesses and public places have changed the way they operate, closed their doors, increased cleaning routines, and offered to help in any way possible, we as Northerners are being asked to do things a little differently than what we are used to. We are being asked to self-quarantine if we have been away or have flu-like symptoms; to buy only what we need and not stockpile, since stockpiling is a privilege not everyone can afford; to support friends in quarantine by staying away and making sure they have what they need; to check on our elderly and friends with compromised immune systems; and to self-police. While healthcare professionals are giving us the information we need to contain this pandemic and protect Northerners from it, they will be working flat out. This means that ensuring we are sharing accurate information, responsibly following quarantine direction, and supporting one another will be up to all Northerners.

Mr. Speaker, I have said before that the North is an incredible place. Following devastating events like deaths of loved ones, car accidents, house fires, and plane crashes, I have watched Northerners pull together and wrap themselves around one another like a warm blanket. I call it "muskoxing," where we take our most vulnerable and rally around them, protecting them until they are ready to stand with us. In essence, this is no different. Now is when we come together to inform ourselves with accurate information, support one another, and be thankful to be part of this northern family. Not only am I thankful to the incredible dedication of public servants and businesses, I am thankful to Northerners because protecting ourselves will require the diligence and collaboration of every single one of us. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Working Together to Contain COVID-19
Members' Statements

Page 741

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Kam Lake. Members' statements. Member for Hay River South.

COVID-19 and Support for Community Members
Members' Statements

Page 741

Rocky Simpson Hay River South

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is times like this when we reflect on what it means to be healthy and to be safe, what it means to move freely throughout our communities, to move freely throughout our country and throughout the world.

It is times like this that we reflect on the what-ifs and the should-haves. It is our responsibility to always do the right thing. It is our responsibility to help our family, friends, and neighbours in these trying times. Most importantly, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is everyone's responsibility to listen to the advice of our NWT Chief Public Health Officer and healthcare professionals and act on their advice. At times, we take things too lightly. We sometimes underestimate the circumstances. Sometimes information received from the Internet may get confused with the truth or fact, something we want to avoid with COVID-19 or any other potentially deadly virus.

Mr. Speaker, along with our healthcare professionals, I know that our Chief Public Health Officer is working diligently to keep the residents of the NWT as safe as possible. It is the healthcare professionals and support workers who are the front line in this battle against COVID-19. We must make certain that they are afforded the time and resources required to effectively and efficiently carry out their duties. They do not need the additional stress of public chaos or panic. What they do require is our calm and support.

Mr. Speaker, the more support we provide to the healthcare professionals by not interfering in the work they are doing or generating unwanted fear, the earlier the action plan they have developed will be in place and the safer we will all be. We know the best-laid plans can change, and we must expect and welcome that change without criticism. Everything is moving quickly and being done in the best interests of our health.

Together, let us confront the situation the world is facing. Let us show respect, support, and applaud those on the front lines, the scientists, the medical officers, the doctors, the nurses, and all the support staff, something we never do enough and should do more of.

Mr. Speaker, I will not have questions for the Minister for health, as we need her out working and consulting with her department to ensure plans are in place to keep the NWT residents free from COVID-19. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

COVID-19 and Support for Community Members
Members' Statements

Page 741

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Hay River South. Members' statements. Member for Yellowknife Centre.

COVID-19 and Support for Tourism
Members' Statements

Page 741

Julie Green Yellowknife Centre

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The coronavirus pandemic is swiftly moving and unpredictable. A little more than a month ago, I spoke about the effect of coronavirus on tourism in the NWT, based on the Chinese government directive to halt group travel. Now, travel by almost everyone in the northern hemisphere to almost anywhere in the world is not advised by public health officials. Of course, that includes travel to and from the NWT from outside of Canada. New arrivals will be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Mr. Speaker, visitors are listening to the call to stay home. They have cancelled hotels and car rentals, especially in Yellowknife. Meanwhile there is less to do here as festival planners heed the call of social distancing and cancel their events. We are looking at significant losses to non-profits, such as the Snowking Festival and the Long John Jamboree, and to businesses of all sizes because of this disruption. There are indirect effects as well; a loss of business for day-tour operators, restaurants, and stores. Given what we know about this public health emergency, things are going to get worse before they get better.

Mr. Speaker, some tourism operators in the NWT are waving the white flag. They are worried whether their businesses will also become casualties of the pandemic. The chair of NWT Tourism is asking government for help. Among his requests is stimulus funding to help the tourism industry once the pandemic is over, support for employers with staff using immigration programs to earn permanent residency status, and support for seasonal workers who earn most of their income in the summer.

Mr. Speaker, when I last raised this issue, a month ago, the Minister of Industry Tourism and Investment said it would be fall before she had a clear picture of the season. It is clear now that that response is totally inadequate. Last year, the NWT earned $210 million in tourism revenue, with about a third of that coming from aurora tourism. Assistance to tour operators and efforts to market the NWT as a destination will have to kick in much sooner. I will have questions for the Premier. Mahsi.

COVID-19 and Support for Tourism
Members' Statements

Page 741

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Yellowknife Centre. Members' statements. Member for Inuvik Twin Lakes.

COVID-19 and What it Means to Self-Isolate
Members' Statements

Page 741

Lesa Semmler Inuvik Twin Lakes

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. On Friday, I asked about what the plan is for our families and teachers returning to Inuvik after they've been out of the country, and we've gotten a lot of information over the weekend and from our Minister and from our Premier today. Thankfully, we do not have any confirmed cases in the NWT, but, like the Premier stated, it's not a matter of if it hits; it's a matter of when it hits. Already, we're starting to hear a lot of people who are nervous and scared.

One of the things that I've been wanting to talk about is what it means to self-isolate. It means to stay home and, if you go outside, be by yourself. It means to avoid having visitors or visiting anybody. You can have people drop off or deliver things that you may need. It means to keep your distance in your home if you have somebody in your home who is under self-isolation. This is very important. I will have questions later for the Minister to ensure that our elders and those who do not have Internet are being provided with all the information paper form and in the proper language, if needed, as well as providing information packages to the community and Indigenous governments to have the most current and recent information to provide their residents because, in the small communities, that's who people turn to.

Another question that has come up over and over again, and it was nice about the education part, so we know that the schools are closed, but what about the daycares? We have concerns from my community about the daycares. Mr. Speaker, March and April is Jamboree season, also, in my region, and we are happy to get together after a long, dark winter. There are many events every evening over the next few weeks with 200 to 300 who will be gathering. Who is talking to these event coordinators, and has the Chief Public Health Officer reached out to them, and what is the recommendation for these events? I'll be heading home tomorrow to be in my community for my community and, in order for me to provide up-to-date and accurate information, MLAs need each department involved updating us with pertinent information daily, even if it says "no changes today." Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

COVID-19 and What it Means to Self-Isolate
Members' Statements

Page 741

The Speaker (Hon. Frederick Blake Jr) Frederick Blake Jr.

Thank you, Member for Inuvik Twin Lakes. Members' statements. Member for Nunakput.