Life on the mean streets of Iqaluit

Saturday, August 15, 2009

TORONTO and IQALUIT — RCMP had seen the boy before. Many times, in fact: Sometimes his parents would call the police and report that their son was missing; other times police would find the 10-year-old wandering the streets of Iqaluit at night, just to avoid going home.

They were used to bringing him back to his parents night after night, said Iqaluit RCMP Staff Sergeant Leigh Tomfohr.

“He just doesn’t like to stay at home. … He was just basically a runaway, if you want to call it that. They have a hard time containing him and keeping him at home.”

A photo of the boy, curled up asleep just a few feet from another 10-year-old, has sparked outrage in the Northern community, as well as a debate on just how extreme the region’s social problems are.

The children lie next to the wall of the Northmart supermarket in Iqaluit, the riding of federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. It is 6:30 on a Sunday morning. The boy to the rear is wearing shorts.

A few hours after the picture was taken on July 26, the federal government held a joint press conference, involving three ministers who outlined Ottawa’s strategy on sovereignty and Northern development, talking of their hope for the area.

In a region the federal and territorial governments say they are determined to develop, thousands of young people, many of whom grew up in dysfunctional or abusive environments, find themselves without education or employment prospects in the territorial capital.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make his sixth visit to the territory since taking office. He will be visiting a place where the suicide rate outpaces the national figure by 11 to one.

Painting a complete picture of how many runaway young boys exist is not possible because formal numbers are not collated unless the young are placed in care. But for Nunavut’s youngest, the risks are high. The youth suicide statistic alone is troubling.

In Nunavut, where Mr. Harper will spend five days, the number of suicides among boys aged 15 to 19 is 40 times higher than in the rest of Canada. Although the rate of suicides for that age group decreased in the past five years, the suicide rate more than doubled for 10- to 14-year-old boys over that same period.

Amanda Eegeesiak saw the sleeping boys that Sunday morning, took the pictures and phoned the RCMP. By the time they arrived, one boy had already gone. Authorities haven’t seen him since.

The other boy, well known to them, was taken home. Staff Sgt. Tomfohr said police contacted social services and the boy is now “somewhere safe.” The police officer declined to say if the boy was at home or not.

“If there was any kind of criminal activity there, [social services] would have notified us to step back in,” he said.

Ms. Eegeesiak sent the photos to the Nunatsiaq News, where their publication garnered thousands of outraged responses – and a degree of blowback for having published them in the first place, Ms. Eegeesiak’s mother Evie later told The Globe.

“I almost started crying when I saw the photos,” she told The Globe in an earlier interview. “Nobody’s out to help them. Nobody’s there for them. You can’t just leave them on the street. What if it was wintertime? You’d be finding little bodies all over the place. It’s awful. It’s horrible.”

The boy’s mother spoke with CBC-TV yesterday, and said she was “humiliated” by the attention the photo of him has generated. The mother of five said the police officers who brought her son home called her one of the worst parents they had ever met.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Aglukkaq said the Minister would consider giving an interview next week.

RCMP and social workers say this case is a rare occurrence in Iqaluit. The temperature that night never fell below 16 degrees, aided by the long hours of summer daylight.

Some close to the social problems of Nunavut believe the image is emblematic of a growing crisis, but “crisis” is a term rejected by Lorne MacLeod, Iqaluit’s supervisor of social services. Iqaluit has six social workers for the city of 7,000. Each worker has 30 cases.

“Personally I don’t think that, you know, it’s a crisis situation. I think for the most part when we’re made aware of a child at risk we are in a position to respond to that,” he said. “There’s obviously a wish-list and I’m sure that’s the same anywhere you go, you know? We do, I think, a really good job with what we have and, yeah, we are sort of leaning on the resources that are inherent in this community.”

Iqaluit resident Caroline Anawak, who used to be the territory’s co-ordinator for mental health issues, said the photo that has the city in an uproar represents a crisis few are willing to confront head-on.

“These young kids, you see them walking around at midnight, you see them breaking into cars, you see them stealing food. … All of that is symptomatic of a great number of people who’ve been left behind in that ugly grinding reality of poverty, of disconnection from services, of family dysfunction at home and nowhere to go and ‘Who cares where I am?’ “

The territory’s housing commission, MLAs and unelected community leaders have reported extreme overcrowding due to a housing shortage – of affordable housing, especially – resulting in some kids simply leaving home at night to find an alternative place to rest their heads.

“It might be that there’s drinking and for your own safety, lying beside a garbage can is your alternative,” Ms. Anawak said.

Sixty per cent of the territory’s population is under 25, Statistics Canada reports.

Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott said there is an anonymity for some in the city of Iqaluit. In some ways, he said, children are better supported in rural communities where everyone knows them and their parents. But the challenge for the smaller communities is combatting isolation and a paucity of resources.

What’s missing, he argues, is a body dedicated to children’s welfare: Nunavut is one of only three Canadian jurisdictions without a youth advocate. (The other two are Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories.) The Yukon set up its own youth department earlier this year. Mr. Elliott and Nunavut’s Justice Minister Keith Peterson have been vocal advocates of an office dedicated to youth and children’s welfare.

Nunavut’s youth are hit with a multilayered identity crisis – they’re grappling with divergent and often conflicting cultures and ways of life, being raised in families often scarred by historical trauma and abuse and struggling to forge their futures in an area where educational and employment opportunities can be hard to come by.

“I think sometimes our youth feel a lot of despair,” Mr. Elliott said. “They don’t know where they are going to go and what they’re going to do.”

Nathaniel Chouinard, 22, knows how that feels. Growing up in 720-person Arctic Bay and picked on as a child for having a white father and Inuit mother, he got out of town the first chance he got.

“If you want a higher education you’ve got to leave town; if you want a better job, you’ve got to leave town. Basically for almost everything, I think, you’ve got to leave town.”

Mr. Chouinard is used to hearing friends talk about wanting to kill themselves; he can instantly think of five childhood friends who committed suicide.

“A lot of guys, they want to kill themselves ’cause they don’t know their actual role.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak suggested the social problems found in Iqaluit are not unlike what can be found in other cities across the country.

The Premier also said the media tend to overemphasize Nunavut’s problems while ignoring recent gains in employment, languages, housing and education.

“Just like anywhere else in the cities or towns across Canada, there are negative things that are happening as well as positive things, and Nunavut is no exception,” she said. “The media will certainly concentrate on one area, most times unfortunately on our negative side of things, and not so much on the positive things that have been happening in Nunavut since the creation of the territory.”

In a territory where it is not uncommon for 20 people to live together in a two-bedroom home, Ms. Aariak said building new housing is a key priority for improving the lives of Nunavut’s residents.

“We still need a lot more houses to address our situation, but within the last five years, 930 houses have been built,” she said. “We need a lot more, but to show you there is progress in the areas that need to be addressed badly.”

Carleton University professor Frances Abele, who has written extensively on Arctic development, said in many ways Nunavut is still young, and still figuring out how to deal with the needs of its population. After a decade of establishing itself politically, “now the time has come when they have to build a society,” she said.

“That may take another 20 years.”

With reports from

Jennifer MacMillan and Bill Curry


The distance between Iqaluit, Nunavut, to Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland, is about 800 kilometres – but in terms of development, the two are a universe apart. Greenland is decades ahead of Canada’s North when it comes to economic self-sufficiency, social and physical health indicators. It has taken steps in addressing its at-risk youth in ways Canadian leaders are still discussing.

Capital resources

The suicide rate in 17,000-person Nuuk has declined steadily since 1980 – it’s now about a third what it was 30 years ago – thanks in large part to social services, resources and infrastructure concentrated in the urban centre.

Meeqqat Inuusuttullu Pillugit


MIPI is a centre dedicated to studying and tracking the welfare of children and youth in Greenland. Founded in 2001 and funded by the Greenland government, its reports have sparked “massive debate” on child and youth poverty, says spokeswoman Lona Lynge. MIPI’s 2008 Children’s Standard of Living report documented the effects on children of families strained by poverty.

Ilisimatusarfik –

University of Greenland

When Canadians talk of the importance of an Arctic university to foster local education and preserve Inuit culture, this is the school they hope to emulate: It has four departments, 150 students and a $3.1-million annual budget; it offers baccalaureates, master’s degrees and PhD programs, and features courses taught in Danish and Greenlandic.

Ports and wharfs

Greenland has extensive marine infrastructure in almost every major coastal community, supporting a burgeoning fishing industry, says University of British Columbia professor Michael Byers. Nunavut, by contrast, has no sizable harbours: Its fishing community is often forced to process their catch at sites in Greenland, which many argue robs jobs that could otherwise be sustained on Canada’s Arctic coast.

Political devolution

Greenland’s government is far more independent than Canada’s Northern territories – so much so that its population voted in a referendum in November, 2008, to devolve from Denmark, giving it partial independence – and more control over its gas, gold and diamond reserves – after 300 years of Danish rule.

Anna Mehler Paperny


Social problems in the North


A 2000 study examined 110 clients taking part in a oneyear continuous psychiatric consultation series in Iqaluit.

Family conflict/ stress 35%

Marital/ relationship stress 26

Victim of abuse 25

Disability/ medical illness 17

Legal charges/ problems 16

Job stress 15

Social isolation 12

Parental/ familial neglect 10

School problems 9

Noncompliance with medication 9

Bereavement 7

Cultural difficulty 6

Homelessness 5

Relocation stress 5

Psychiatrists diagnosed a number of psychosocial problems in the patients.

Note: Individuals may have more than one stressor, percentages add up to more than 100%


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