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Arctic pain
By Rick Mayoh

At age 25, Geoff Kilabuck already has known 33 people who have committed suicide. The suicide rate among Canada?s aboriginal (First Nations, M?tis, Inuit) youth is six times the national average. Even more staggering, the figure among Inuit youth climbs to 11 times the national average, one of the highest rates in the world, according to the National Inuit Youth Council.

Kilabuck is an Inuk aftercare worker with Tungasuvvingat Inuit?s Mamisarvik Healing Centre, an eight-week, Inuit-specific, trauma and addiction treatment program in Ottawa, Ontario. He is unlikely to encounter a single client untouched by that overwhelming tsunami of pain, which has yet to register in Southern consciousness.

Kilabuck is from the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit, population 6,000, on Baffin Island. Ten of the centre?s 13 full-time staff are Inuit. Tungasuvvingat Inuit (?a place where Inuit are welcome?) has provided social, cultural and counselling services to Inuit locally and nationally since 1987. It has an all-Inuit board of directors.

One of the most striking Inuit demographics is that the entire population of Nunavut has just reached 30,000. That is equivalent to sprinkling the populace of Bowmanville, Ontario, across 26 communities in an area twice the size of Ontario. Another 20,000 Inuit live in the western Arctic (Inuvialuit), northern Quebec (Nunavik) and Labrador (Nunatsiavut). Ottawa has the largest Inuit population outside the North with about 1,000 residents. Tungasuvvingat Inuit?s clientele is a blend of Inuit living in southern cities and across the North, primarily the eastern Arctic.

Inuit pain runs deep and many living conditions in the North remain deplorable. Jose Kusugak, president of the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says Inuit ?are at the extremes of Statistics Canada?s indicators: highest rates of unemployment, lowest income, highest cost of living, worst housing conditions, highest rates of communicable diseases and shortest life expectancy.? Unemployment soars to 70 per cent in some Northern communities. Nunavut?s school dropout rate is 76 per cent.

?Our client profile includes major issues with violence, suicide, poverty, grief and loss, homelessness, justice and childcare systems and isolation in small communities,? says Tungasuvvingat Inuit program co-ordinator Ginette Chouinard. ?People come from very large families with a lot of adoptions and you see grandparents in their 30s.?

Yet despite overwhelming need, there was no senior official solely responsible for Inuit issues in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development until an Inuit Secretariat was created in the department just two years ago. Tungasuvvingat Inuit and the Saputjivik Treatment Centre in North West River, Labrador, currently provide the only Inuit-specific residential programs in Canada. The Isuarsivik Treatment Centre at Kuujjuak in northern Quebec is reorganizing. Chouinard had to generate Inuit-specific programming from scratch with therapist Reepa Evic-Carleton because none existed.

?We think you have to work on everything at the same time in a trauma and addictions program,? says Chouinard, architect of Tungasuvvingat Inuit?s version of the biopsychosocial model. ?It?s a very flexible, holistic approach. We decided to go with harm reduction and abstinence to give people choices.? Chouinard says the substances of choice are primarily marijuana and alcohol, with crack cocaine rising rapidly. Most clients choose harm reduction for the former and abstinence for the latter two.

Tungasuvvingat Inuit?s residential program began in September of 2003, with funding from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (ahf) to operate Pigiarvik House, a nine-bedroom facility in central Ottawa that can accommodate 12 people in each cycle. The agency has about 200 open files (including 70 men) and treats about 60 people each year. A contract with the Government of Nunavut to treat 20 clients annually began in 2004. The agency receives $570,000 from the ahf and $170,000 from the Government of Nunavut each year.

Programming is delivered in Inuktitut and English in a beautiful old house nearby, filled with Inuit artifacts and the wafting aroma of staff cook Jeanie Schofield?s offerings, which include traditional ?country food? such as caribou, Arctic char and, occasionally, seal.

Day programming is offered to Inuit living in Ottawa or staying with relatives. Following an intensive eight-week cycle, continuing care is available three times a week for a total treatment term of two-and-a-half years. Family, couples and indiv-idual counselling also are available.

?Most clients are in their early 30s and up, although we get some 20-year-olds,? says program director Pam Stellick. ?At least half of the people score high on our post-traumatic stress disorder screening tool, and 90 per cent or more have residual trauma issues. We see very high rates of childhood physical and sexual abuse.?

?Success here can be a healthier lifestyle or a safer environment,? says Stellick. ?It?s not a black and white thing. It could be getting your kids back from the Children?s Aid Society or not getting them apprehended in the first place.?

Training staff is of key importance to the program, says Stellick: ?For this to be an Inuit-specific program, it has to be delivered primarily by Inuit.?

?Our strength is the character of our staff,? adds Chouinard. ?My biggest hope is that we can train Inuit counsellors to work in the North and that it won?t be taken over by Southern culture. It?s not about doing the white man?s stuff.? Chouinard says she knows her agency is a success because whenever she is in the North and the program is mentioned, people smile.

Although many clients are familiar with the South, some from small Arctic settlements face huge adjustments and experience culture shock just coming to Ottawa. One client absolutely beamed after his first encounter with a forest. Therapist Evic-Carleton moved to Ottawa 17 years ago from Pangnirtung, a Baffin Island community of 1,400, and says she relates to that client?s experience. ?When I came down, there were all the cars, the buildings, the heat, the trees, too many choices for everything, such a fast way of living,? she says. ?It?s very important for clients to be surrounded by people who speak their language, especially about the very deep things in their lives.?

Inuit people thrive in group therapy, so much so that weekday programming consists of group from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., punctuated by breaks and lunch. Inuit history, assertiveness training, goal-setting and trauma and art therapy are among the focal points.

Each weekday begins with the ceremonial lighting of the qulliq, the traditional seal oil lamp once essential for heat, light, cooking, melting snow and drying clothes in an igloo.

There is plenty of fun and laughter during the program, as well as tears. On evenings and weekends, there are activities involving therapeutic recreation such as taekwondo and the YMCA, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and invited guest speakers. The program takes advantage of being in the nation?s capital, with visits to local landmarks, festivals and sports events.

Studying Inuit history has proven to be a powerful healing tool. Inuit are dealing with the intense intergenerational trauma of having their world turned upside down through federal government interventions in a very short span from the 1950s to the 1970s. In just two decades, a nomadic way of life that had flourished for thousands of years largely came to an end because of forced relocation into settlements. Inuit children were put in residential schools at age five and told not to speak their own language, resulting in an enormous disconnect with their parents.

Last year, Parliament?s Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development began a study into Inuit charges that tens of thousands of their beloved sled dogs were slaughtered by the RCMP across the North in the 1950s and 1960s to facilitate Inuit movement into settlements. ?No wonder my parents and grandparents were drinking.? says one client. ?They were angry. They couldn?t do anything about it. My mother lost our three dogs when she went to get wood for the fire. She said the RCMP shot them still in their harness. The old patterns I learned are going to stop with me,? she says. ?I came here for my drinking problem and went through healing I didn?t expect. I think I?ve opened the door for my family. I feel rich in my heart.?

Therapists Evic-Carleton and Barbara Sevigny, who is originally from Iqaluit, present Inuit history in group. ?It?s wonderful when people start looking and ask ?Where is the pain coming from??? says Sevigny. ?A lot of people died of starvation, died from the cold and even died from being in so much pain because of the impact of residential schools, relocation and dog slaughter.?

One day client says he appreciates going back into Inuit history and the professionalism of the staff: ?Even though there were times when I didn?t want to hear what the counsellors were telling me, it was what I needed to hear.?

Inuit elder Meeka Arnakaq is an Arctic College educator from Pangnirtung and is a unilingual Inuktitut speaker who serves as an elder with Tungasuvvingat Inuit. She compares Inuit pain to an iceberg, most of it still hidden below the surface: ?Physical abuse only started very recently when we were put in communities,? she says. ?People who were born in the 1980s are not aware of the things that were snatched from us.?

?I see the father having the most problems,? says Arnakaq. ?Men don?t have that much protection. A man has to be proud. I see men who are ashamed of who they are. We see men with their heads down and their sons will grow up like them. If the sled is toppled over, it cannot go. It is stuck. The man is underneath. This is how Inuit men are today. They are stuck. Their responsibilities have been taken away. The qamutik (sled) has to stand up; the dogs have to start running. ?Who is going to stand them up??

Rick Mayoh is a residential counsellor with Tungasuvvingat Inuit.
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