In Nunavut, the problems are familiar – and so are the solutions

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 – Globe and Mail

It took a photo of two boys sleeping on the pavement in Iqaluit to show Canada the face of a young population in crisis.

But the problems behind that crisis, and the steps needed to remedy them, were painstakingly laid out in a 92-page document released in 2006.

Three years later, little has changed. The problems the report outlines as urgent concerns are still prevalent. The steps it recommends to address them are in the early stages, if they exist at all.

The document, released by Nunavut’s then-health-minister Leona Aglukkaq and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the Inuit advocacy group that co-authored the study along with the federal and territorial governments, was meant to usher in an era of co-operation in tackling inadequacies in the way health care is delivered in Nunavut.

Since then, a federally funded pilot project has been launched to bring community health-care plans – a cornerstone of the report – to six Nunavut communities and the Nunavut government has begun consultations on a suicide-prevention strategy.

But both of these basic initiatives are a long way from being rolled out territory-wide.

Nunavut remains the only Canadian jurisdiction without dedicated mental health or addictions facilities – let alone the culture-specific ones that proponents contend are vital if the territory hopes to deal with sky-high addiction, abuse and suicide rates.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail yesterday, Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said programs exist to help at-risk youth and heal dysfunctional families – the problem is a lack of capacity. There aren’t enough people, and not nearly enough people trained locally, to deal effectively with the large proportion of the population in need of assistance.

“Of course, we have some capacity issues. We have high turnover rate issues, as well. That’s why we are trying to promote training and education in the line of social services in the North,” she said. “We need to utilize more of our local people to help raise the level of self-reliance in our own communities.”

In response to this, she said, the Nunavut government is promoting training programs in colleges around the territory in an effort to boost its local brain trust and ease pressure on strained social services.

Ms. Aariak said the photo was shocking because it was such an isolated case. But she said it also draws attention to areas the government should improve upon.

“We need to very much look at how to continue the good work that has been provided in a way that is creative and innovative. … We know what the needs are, but we have to actually improve and ensure that the kinds of needs are met as much as possible.”

Ms. Aglukkaq, now MP for Nunavut and the federal Health Minister, was not available for comment. However, her spokeswoman, Josée Bellemare, sent the following e-mail on Ms. Aglukkaq’s behalf: “As the Regional Minister for the North, I have a strong understanding of the issues and challenges we currently face. The story [about the boys’ photo] which you’re referring to is concerning, and I will raise this issue with both my territorial counterpart, as well as the Premier. Our Government has a strong record in the North – a record I intend to build upon even further.”

Natan Obed, Nunavut Tunngavik’s director of social and cultural development, said it’s true the capacity of existing services to deliver is a major stumbling block.

But he said the problems are more complex than that, and require better culturally specific programs for a population dealing with historical trauma.

“We live with very different social realities in this territory that are going to take a long time to change,” he said. “I know the line is, well, more money is never the answer. … But money has to be a part of the answer if you’re talking about providing services.

For Jeane Mike, the now-notorious photo of two sleeping boys evokes all-too-familiar feelings of frustration. Ms. Mike spent several years as a social worker in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, and remembers the feeling of helplessness.

Ms. Mike, who was “appalled” to see the photo of the two boys, said she worries that more than a lack of services, the photo is indicative of a fraying social fabric in a culture that would normally never permit two young children to sleep on the street.

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