Businesses in the NWT are sounding a warning that the longer the border remains closed, the less likely they are to survive 2021.
“We continue to urge the GNWT to find solutions to stimulate the economy on a local level,” said NWT Chamber of Commerce president Jenni Bruce.
Bruce spoke just days after chief public health officer (CPHO) Kami Kandola said the lifting of travel restrictions will have to wait until Covid-19 vaccinations in southern jurisdictions reach sufficiently high levels.
“For the rest of Canada, they’re not going to achieve herd immunity or significant immunization until probably the end of 2021,” Kandola told a meeting of the Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight meeting on Wednesday.
The exception could be a travel bubble with Yukon and Nunavut because those territories share the NWT’s goal of reaching 75 per cent immunization of eligible populations.
More free movement across provincial borders will also depend on whether the Covid vaccines eventually prove capable of preventing both illness and transmission, Kandola added.
Still, Bruce said the GNWT has been responsive to feedback on the needs of the business community and she wants that to continue.
For Canadian North, which flies regularly between southern jurisdictions and communities in the NWT, continued support from the federal and territorial governments will be necessary for the airline to carry on throughout the rest of the pandemic, said spokesperson Kevin Kablutsiak.
In May, the airline received $5.3 million in support from a federal government pot of $130 million for territorial and Northern businesses, and in September it received $9.3 million from a joint federal-GNWT fund for essential air services.
The slowdown in passenger traffic due to the pandemic saw Canadian North reduce some of its trans-territorial itineraries from daily and even twice daily to a few times a week.
Passenger traffic is currently down 65 to 70 per cent compared to normal, Kablutsiak said. Before the second wave of Covid-19 it was by 50 per cent. At its lowest point since the pandemic began traffic was down by 90 per cent.
“The global pandemic has been very challenging both on our employees and operations,” Kablutsiak said. “However, as a company providing essential and critical airline services to remote communities, we will continue to work hard to support the public health measures and efforts by the governments of the jurisdictions we operate in. We recognize the important role Canadian North airlines play in the fight against Covid-19 and we take it very seriously.”
The border restrictions and economic fallout of the pandemic has put the GNWT in a position of dealing with a future “that is neither certain or clear,” said Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) spokesperson Drew Williams.
He added that ITI would continue to take its lead from the CPHO and work through initiatives like the Growth and Recovery by Investing in Tourism, Buy NWT programs, Support for Entrepreneurs and Economic Development policy pivots and Creative Industries Economic Recovery Fund to support the business community.
Prolonged travel restrictions will “no doubt” be difficult for some teachers, said Matthew Miller, president of the NWT Teachers’ Association.
“We know this year has already been one of the most challenging our members have faced. Teachers will justifiably need a break, but what that looks like and where it occurs is hard to say at this point,” he said.
In November, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) decided that teachers returning to the NWT after the holiday period wouldn’t be given paid leave while self-isolating, and had to request extended unpaid leave.
Principals and superintendents had to decide who would be granted leave without pay.
At the time, Miller called ECE’s decision “extremely disappointing,” saying that it put educators in a position where they had to choose between being with their families or mental health and their financial responsibilities.
But Miller said on Thursday that the NWTTA would continue to follow the direction of the CPHO while supporting its members.
Union of Northern Workers
For the Union of Northern Workers (UNW), many of its members across all sectors of the GNWT are missing time with their loved ones outside the territory due to the travel restrictions, said president Todd Parsons.
As a result, many have also accumulated large amounts of leave over the last year.
“The Collective Agreement between the UNW and GNWT has provisions for how much accumulated leave can be carried over before a worker is paid out, and the union has requested an increase to the amount that can be carried over to accommodate those who have incurred large leave balances,” Parsons said.
In case a large number of workers decide to use their accumulated leave around the same time, “the employer will have to find a fair balance between maintaining operational requirements and employees’ right – and need – to take leave,” he added.