I’ve had the bounty of house-sitting in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut for 10 weeks and during that time I’ve been exposed to a lot of information about the community, which left me with a lot of questions. Recently I read a study called The Little Voices of Nunavut: A Study of Women’s Homelessness North of 60. The main researcher was Judi Bopp, a Bahá’í.
This study painted a picture for me that put everything into context, and to help me process what I’ve learned, I wrote this piece. It’s just what I’m thinking today, perhaps overly simplistic or making too many generalizations and if so, I hope that my readers will set me straight by adding their thoughts.
If this had been my life, my parents would have been born in an igloo, living the life of their ancestors since the dawn of time, following the herd and hunting caribou, muskox, walrus and seal in order to survive. It was a harsh, unforgiving life but it was their life and all they knew of the world. One year, as often happens in nature, the hunting was scarce. The children were sick, and they were all facing certain starvation.
Along comes a white man with a translator, crawls into your igloo and offers you a job working in his mine. He promises your family can come with you and he’ll make sure you have a house and food and maybe even medical care. It seems to be an answer to your prayers, so you agree.
It’s a win-win for you and for the mining company, who don’t have to pay huge airfare costs to bring in a workforce from the south. They can house you more cheaply because, after all, you’re not used to much. You work hard, the bosses and co-workers treat you well, your wife and children are fed and healthy. Everybody is happy.
One day your boss invites you for a drink after work. It doesn’t take much and you’re feeling fine. Everybody is happy, until you go home. You’re late, your wife is worried, she doesn’t like the changes she sees in you because you’ve been drinking, you rape your daughter, she tries to intervene and ends up with a black eye. She starts nagging you to come home after work, avoid alcohol and remember who you are. You’re an Inuit, a man, someone who respects and looks after his family. But the lure of the co-workers is great, the alcohol lets you forget your nagging wife at home. And so the cycle starts.
Your wife becomes afraid of you, takes the children and goes, where exactly? If she’s lucky, maybe some of your husband’s siblings are also in town, working for the mine and she goes there. But their housing is barely big enough for their family and you aren’t exactly welcome. And if there’s drinking there too, and your children are still in danger.
We all know the story.
What’s different here is the mine closed. Some of the men went to work in other mines; others stayed here. The population grew but the housing didn’t.
This is a polar desert – try to imagine living in the middle of the Sahara Desert with snow. There is no wood to build houses; there are no roads or railways to bring in building materials; there are no jobs so over half the population is living on welfare. The cost of living is very, very, very high, since everything has to be shipped in (for 2 weeks a year when the Hudson’s Bay is free of ice) or flown in. Either option is prohibitively expensive. The government builds houses for the lawyers and teachers and medical personnel who come here for a couple of years and then leave, but there’s little if any money to build houses for your people.
So let’s go back to the time of the mine closing in the 1960’s. Some do-gooders come in to the community, see the poverty and homelessness, and decide the best solution is to take the children from the community and put them in residential schools where they will be taught to forget their language and culture and get an education and hopefully stay in the south and “make something of themselves.” We know what happened in the residential schools – horrific sexual and physical abuse, the after-effects have had terrible consequences on the lives of those affected and their children and grandchildren.
So let’s say that was your experience. Your parents, uncomprehending of why the children had been stolen from the community, turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. They’re living on welfare and the cost of living is high and there isn’t enough money so maybe they’ve turned to crime in order to survive. Maybe they’ve even been caught and sent to jail. Now they have an addiction problem and a criminal record.
You come back home for the summers and try to tell your families what you’ve been going through in residential schools, but nothing in their genetic memory has prepared them for such atrocity and besides that, they’ve got problems of their own. They can’t help you and you go back to school.
Let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones to get a good education and you decide to come back and help your people. You get a high paid government job, you’re provided with a nice place to live, you feel you’re making a difference. You marry, start a family. Life is good. Everyone’s happy.
Perhaps your husband is from here, unemployed, supported by you, upset that he can’t contribute to the family, bored during the day, so he starts drinking and the cycle begins. You’re being beaten, your children are being molested, you take them out of the house to safety. To where, exactly?
If you’re lucky you might have relatives in town, but you’re not exactly welcome because their homes are already overcrowded, so you can only spend a night or two there, then home again, then somewhere else. You never know what you’re going to have to face when you get home. You don’t know how to keep your children safe. You have no skills to deal with this and no resources to help. And you have deep, deep scars from your life in the residential schools. You develop all sorts of mental health issues which make it hard to concentrate at work. The powerlessness of your present life brings back all the powerlessness you felt as a child and you are paralyzed.
You start missing work because you’ve been beaten so badly you can’t leave the house, or your situation has got you down you have nothing left to give a job. No job, no house. You have 7 days to leave. And go where, exactly? And the cycle begins.
And it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a good education and a great resume. You now have mental health issues; and you are homeless, living a transient lifestyle, moving from house to house. There’s no privacy for you and your children. Fights break out, people take sides, there’s drinking everywhere and no safe place for you and your children. There’s not enough food. The children can’t concentrate on homework, they’re ashamed before their peers so they stop going to school, till 87% of the population has not completed grade 8 and many are functionally illiterate.
You can’t feed your children, so you either trade sex for food and shelter; or you turn to crime yourself so you can feed your family. Now you’ve got a mental health issue, an addictions problem, a criminal record and some do-gooder from the south decides you aren’t a fit parent, so they put your children in foster care, where they are abused and grow up doubly scarred and the cycle continues.
Because the children have been taken away your drinking increases. Now you’ve got a reputation as a no-good-dirty-good-for-nothing-Inuit, and no one will rent you a place and you’ve burned out your welcome with family and friends and you go where exactly?
Or let’s look at another scenario. You’ve got a good education and a good job and so does your husband. But even though this is 2013, his name is on the lease and you have no legal rights to the house. It’s a good house and you start a family. Life is good and you are happy. There’s often a knock at the door at night, and you never know who might need a place to crash, but they come in anyway. Perhaps it starts some friction between you and your husband, and even if there is no alcohol, the tension caused by overcrowding is great. All of a sudden you have no privacy in your own home and all your income is going to feed other people. It’s OK though. It’s your life and you can handle it, until all of a sudden your husband dies and you have 7 days to leave, and go where exactly? And all the people living with you will go where exactly? Now you’re homeless and caught in the cycle mentioned above.
Now it’s 2013 and there are up to 20 people living in a house 1000 square feet.
And there’s a steady parade of studies and high paid government workers coming to town with high ideals. They can fix this. They bring in programs and skills development. They open a trade school with apprenticeships in a wide variety of trades. And you go to the program and you’re given a place to live and life is good and you have hope, until the semester ends and you have to leave and go where exactly?
And if the government has flown you here from another community and promised you training and maybe even guaranteed you a job when you graduate, you’re doing everything in your power to take advantage of this situation, until the semester ends, and there’s no money to go home and the only people you know are the students and staff at the school and you have 7 days to leave and go where exactly?
And the cycle continues.
We know this story. We hear echos of it in aboriginal communities all across Canada. There’s a homeless problem all across Canada.
The difference here is that there are no houses and no way to build them unless you bring everything in by plane at a cost people on welfare simply can’t afford. Even if you’re working and have good money and can afford to build a house you won’t also be able to pay for water, heat and hydro, which because of the climate and the distance, have to be hugely subsidized. And even if you are working, and educated, every single person living here is at risk of losing their housing and go where exactly?
What will it take to fix this problem, you ask?
Everyone needs a place to call home!
If you’re housing is secure, your children will be a lot more secure and more of them will complete school and go on to higher education and get jobs and start their families and move into their own homes and provide a stable base for their family.
That’s where it has to start.
This is what we in the south take for granted.
But of course, it’s not as simple as that.
Once people are housed, and before they will be successful with job training, they need help with:
- Mental health issues
- Daily living skills training (including cooking, banking and budgeting and use of credit)
- Parenting training
- And probably a lot more I haven’t thought of
How do my parents, born in an igloo, teach me how to function in a world with showers, where food is cooked, where people use money? If I don’t learn these things at home, who will teach me? And who will teach them?
How do I, who went to residential schools and didn’t grow up in a family, know how to be in a family? How will I know how to deal with marital issues or how to parent when I haven’t watched my parents parent me? When my only role models are an entire community of people like me and don’t have the skills either?
How do my children, who were taken from me and put into foster care ever learn how to parent when their parents and grand-parents didn’t learn because they lived in igloos or residential schools, so they don’t know and don’t have the skills to teach me, and I’ve moved around to so many foster homes there’s been no stability or time to learn there either? How do I have a stable family life? How can I be a good parent?
This is not an easy problem to fix, but fix it we must. We have an obligation as Canadians, to not let this continue for another generation.
I’m a real believer in grass roots community solutions, but in this polar desert, with temperatures going down to minus 60, there are no resources.
The average age in Nunavut is 19, with 87% of the population with a grade 8 education or less and over half are on welfare and many more don’t even qualify because they don’t have a fixed address.
They don’t have resources.
Everything that comes here has to be subsidized.
This problem is too big for man to solve. It needs our most fervent prayers for God to find a solution, quickly, please!
This community is in crisis in so many ways. It’s no wonder it has the highest rate of suicide than anywhere else in North America.
It starts with houses. People need houses.
The pictures in this article come from an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail called Portraits of Nunavut in Pictures, by Peter Power, Wednesday, Apr. 06 2011. At the top of the article it says:
Editor’s note: Shortly after this piece was published, The Globe and Mail learned that Leo Nangmalik, slides 38-40, had tragically taken his own life. He was 50