Thursday, August 27, 2009

Social Issues in the North? Who could have imagined?!?

{This photo was posted on the CBC news website and shown on CBC's The National. I do not take credit for this photo}

I must apologize in advance for my indignation and my sarcasm! I mean really...are we as Canadians that out of touch with the stark realities faced most prominently by aboriginals in our country? The above photograph was released on CBC's The National this past week, as Prime Minister Steven Harper visited Iqaluit to promote arctic security, and the media spoke of it as a shocking revelation! Anyone who is familiar with the historical patronizing paternalism and humiliation of Canadian aboriginal peoples by our government should have realized that this is the aftermath which has existed for years and several generations!

I must admit I have not personally witnessed young children sleeping out on the streets in the northern communities I lived and taught in--but I also did not live in a city such as Iqaluit and if children were to be found sleeping in our small towns they would most certainly have been picked up by a passing relative, the local bylaw officers, or the RCMP somewhat faster considering the smaller population base. I have however taught and cared for children who have lived in terrible situations, and have been exposed to horrifying experiences no child should ever know!

I will never forget teaching a social studies unit on feelings in one of my grade one/two classrooms in the arctic. On this day we were creating books about feelings. Each page consisted of a blank space for a picture and an unfinished fill-in-the-blank sentence--" I felt sad when..." as an example. Literacy skills are often a challenge and I was helping one young boy fill in the blank "I felt scared when...". My heart ached as this boy replied, most matter-of-fact, that he felt scared when his father had tried to kill his mother and he began relaying the details as though common place.

I remember the pregnant grade seven girls in my junior high class and the students who slept with their heads on their desks desperate to catch a few winks because, as they explained, their parents had kept them up until the wee hours of the morning drinking and playing cards {gambling}. Gambling is so prominent in some communities that you will find young people who have gambled away their eyebrows, and sometimes their hair!

I recall a chair being hurled across my classroom by one of my grade seven students who then proceeded to hit me in the arm as he escaped the classroom in a fit of anger which seemed to materialize from nowhere. I verbally coaxed the boy to the Principal's office. Trying desperately to decipher his anger I asked if he was truly angry with me because I got the distinct feeling it was not me he was really angry with. This strapping preteen, always full of bravado, broke down weeping as would a little boy while I held his hand and attempted in vain to comfort him. With terror in his eyes he begged the principal not to call his father. We learned later as we had suspected from his pleading that his father was known for beating his family.

I shiver to think of one of the young boys we knew who visited the teachers homes--including our own--regularly looking for attention, acceptance, and a place of solace because he was "the family slave". Little was I aware at the time but he was thought to be a useless human being and abused by his family. He was even made to eat scraps like a dog. He was ostracized by his peers and without friends. This boy is now a murderer sitting behind bars charged with heinous crimes he committed against a little girl in his adulthood! I sit and look at pictures of a smiling little boy knowing that he had been turned into a monster by the people who were meant to love him but did not know how.
We fostered two little girls for a short time. One was 3 years old and the other an infant. The communities are often desperately in search of foster families. We already had two of our own so we agreed to helping with short term care. The girls were taken because their mother had attempted suicide and was recovering and their father at the time wanted nothing to do with them.

Please do not misinterpret what I say! These are the most horrific of stories but I could also relate stories of loving parents proudly displaying the babies on their back, cooing at them. "Kuniking"{rubbing noses as a sign of affection} their children as they approach. Stories of older children who never leave out their younger siblings and are careful to keep them safe and happy; Of friendly smiling faces always willing to lend a neighbourly hand. Social problems however run deep.

I appreciate that as adults we are responsible for our actions and parents in the situations I have described here are of course neglectful and at fault, but neglect and dysfunction breeds further neglect and dysfunction. The cycle stems from traumas and misdeeds of the past and without acknowledging and accepting this answers and solutions cannot be attained!

A trusted colleague of mine once spoke at a local teaching conference of her residential school experience. She remembers being taken from her family along with some of her siblings. They were sent to different schools far from home. She remembers being too young to understand why she no longer lived with her family and found it difficult to adjust. When she finally was able to come home she found this too was a difficult adjustment for herself, her parents, and her siblings. Her story brought to life the reality of residential schools in a way reading about them never could. It became easy to understand how this breaking up of families for a generation could destroy Inuit family life and the nature and knowledge of parenting.

CBC aired this photo and the blame game began...the RCMP are not responding swiftly enough or it must just be "those" people!! Wrong!! The RCMP are understaffed and under represented in a city with social problems which run deeper than most Canadians in their cushy middle class lifestyles could ever understand. The government has poured money into band aid solutions but have definitively missed the boat and avoided the tough questions and what is truly necessary. As the once optimist in rose coloured glasses which were removed shortly after arriving in the north, I realize that the Inuit people must ultimately help themselves. But to fix a broken house one requires tools. It is our government which must provide the tools for change and it is the voice of the Canadian people which must call for it!
The Inuit people are a people ravaged by housing shortages, poor nutrition {thanks to the gradual loss of traditional lifestyle}, alcoholism, gambling, and drug addictions. They are also however a people of resilience and great ingenuity. They have endured and in fact enjoyed inhabiting probably the world's harshest and unforgiving environment and have survived! It is this resilience and patience that will ultimately save them from the current reality.
CBC's Duncan McCue produced a heart wrenching feature about the youth of Kugluktuk in 2007 and their struggle to support reform to alcohol access in the community {unfortunately it appears their link to the documentary is broken or I would provide it for you}. These brave youth people--some former students of my husband and myself--told stories about their parents' struggles with addictions, their personal experiences of addiction and abuse, and the losses they have suffered as they watch friends and family members lose their lives through suicide. The feeling of hopelessness is a formidable enemy! I retain my optimism in the belief that it is the youth that will make the difference, it will be their will and strength that will forge a new reality for their children! Perhaps this is naive...
I have been involved in many conversations over the years in which I have encountered the harsh criticism of the Inuit as a people. It is very easy to become jaded and decide that the Inuit just don't wish to solve the social issues that many of them face, that they are lazy, or just don't care! I always counter with a very honest response once that I house in my heart whenever I am in doubt. "If I had to deal with what many of my students had to deal with I would not have turned out as well! I would not have survived and like those who have given in to their grief I would have committed suicide or buried myself in numbing addictions!" I do not criticize a people for their desperation. Encouragement and understanding, esteem building and strength is what is called for from the Canadian public. Better tools of healing through funding proper housing, social programs not meant to foster dependence but rather Independence, safe havens for the abused to escape without leaving everything and everyone they know and love behind is called for from our government!
Perhaps this photo, a snapshot of something forgotten or left to fester in our complacency can be a catalyst to change, a call for help that the government and the Canadian people can no longer ignore! One can hope...

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