Over this past week, I had the absolute joy of spending time with children and youth in Arviat as part of my very first trip to Nunavut. During my stay, we organized a range of activities together with Daniel Kooveanatuk, TakingITGlobal’s newly selected Nunavut Youth Engagement Coordinator.
I met Daniel through his involvement with the Moments of Inclusion Art Project, led by TakingITGlobal in partnership with the Samuel Family Foundation. Daniel submitted artwork to our online Global Gallery and was selected as a winner among hundreds of youth to visit Toronto in order to participate in a global Symposium on Isolation and Social Connectedness from October 1st – 3rd, 2014.
Background According to Statistics Canada, the hamlet of Arviat has a total population of 2,310 (2011) approximately 60% of the population are under the age of 16, yet 71% do not obtain a high school certificate.
Source: http://www.city-data.com/canada/Arviat-Village.html Literacy rates are low and unemployment rates are high in Arviat – especially if you consider the population of people who are not in school, not employed and are not looking for work as they have given up hope in the system and may lack the confidence and skills required.
I was very fortunate to have been welcomed into the lives and homes of Inuit people and am horrified by what I have seen in terms of the lasting impact that colonialism has had. I have always grown up feeling proud to be Canadian - and grateful for the opportunities awarded to me in a country that is based on the belief in the importance of education and health care. And yet, there are so many Inuit children and families living in extreme poverty, without hope, without enough water to drink, without sanitation (i.e. toilet paper, toothbrush or soap to wash up), without toys to play with, without warm clothes to wear, without books at home, without food security, without opportunities to read and write in their own language, without safety from the violence and abuse experienced due to alcohol consumption at home, simply without dignity. I feel ashamed that all Canadians are not aware of and outraged by these living conditions and I intend to commit myself as an advocate and champion for these children and youth who are deserving of their dignity and human rights.
The isolation experienced in these remote communities is what keeps many issues away from the spotlight and out of the media. Very few political leaders travel to Nunavut, and when they do, the primary objective is not centred on community empowerment, but rather, exploitation of land and natural resources for the purposes of big industry such as mining and mineral exploration. Only a small number of jobs are created for Inuit people and often times, there is a major skills gap so the communities who live on the land are excluded from this prosperity. Internet access is sparse and limited to a small few. For example, the internet connection in the public library was shut down due to lack of funding. There is also a lack of technology skills capacity in terms of how to best utilize the tools and resources available for the purposes of community development.
The people often hired to deliver community health and wellness programs, education or social services are typically from other parts of Canada or Europe and they do not speak Inuktitut. This creates significant language and cultural barriers of isolation for Inuit people as they do not feel understood and also have a difficult time understanding what is being said. This often results in a lack of motivation or true engagement in the limited opportunities and resources being offered. As the elders within the community are aging and dying, there is also limited time for the next generation to have a full understanding of their own traditions and heritage. I am aware that I have much more to learn and that the issues are complex. Regardless of our gender, religion, ethnicity or geographic location, these issues impact all of us as Canadians and it is our responsibility to seek further understanding.
Inspiring Hope and Dignity My goal is to inspire a generation of children and youth who have hope, who are curious and ask questions, who have role models with strong values and principles, who are confident in their ability to speak up and advocate for themselves, who have a future that they can look forward to.
The purpose of my visit was to celebrate and promote opportunities for children and youth empowerment through Global Dignity Day, Explore150.ca and our Moments of Inclusion Art Show and Workshops. I am delighted by the response and high levels of engagement in all of the activities I organized together with Daniel Kooveanatuk. Special thanks to Jamie Bell from Arctic College and the Arviat Film Society youth for welcoming me to Arviat and introducing me to so many wonderful people who I was able to learn from and collaborate with during my trip.
Here are some of the highlights from our week together where we directly impacted over 75 children and youth from Arviat through arts-based activities at various cultural sites. On October 13th, we hosted a Youth Art Night at Arctic College to promote creativity and have a discussion on why art is important. Throughout the week, Daniel and I spent time at the Donald Suluk Library in order to read to kids and play games as a way to encourage a culture of reading. I noticed that my loud projection voice was both curious for the children, as well as somewhat intimidating. It was when Daniel started reading to them in his softer voice that they came forward, sitting a little bit closer and in some cases, having the courage to read along with him. On October 14th, we led a Food is Art activity that involved a group of children and youth in learning about nutritious meals through cooking fruits and vegetables together where I talked about vitamins in food. On October 15th, we organized two different events as part of Global Dignity Day.
At the Katimavik Suites conference room we had a fantastic workshop that allowed participants to reflect on what dignity means for them followed by a role play exercise where teams of participants had an opportunity to create recommendations on how to increase dignity if they were Mayor a school Principal, a teacher or Prime Minister of Canada. Here is a video featuring all the ideas generated!
On the evening of October 15th, we organized an Art Show with our Moments of Inclusion Artwork at the Margaret Aniksak Visitor's Centre. Our event featured a traditional Inuit Throat Singing performance as well as participatory drumming allowing those interested to have a turn. There were also materials for children to create artwork and then have it up on display. This particular image from one of the children represents the outcome from our time together that evening:
At the end of the event, a group of children came forward to tell me that they “had a blast” and then asked when the next one would take place. Daniel met with the staff and booked a follow-up Art Night next week!
On October 16th, Daniel and I presented our Moments of Inclusion Art Exhibit at John Arnalukjuak High School from two groups of students from a range of classes. We started in a circle to reflect on what dignity means. We then shared artwork and Daniel gave a speech about the Power of Art as a way to promote inclusion and dignity.
Following our presentation, we moved into the art room and everyone was asked to create an artistic representation of a place in their community that they like most as part of our Explore150.ca mapping project. The Inuksuk was a popular symbol in the artwork created as it represents so much for Inuit people, from being a navigation system on the land to being a core part of their identity, heritage and personal compass.
During the last night of my visit, I joined the Arviat Film Society as part of a collaborative film project on the theme of dignity led by John Arnalukjuak High School teacher Gord Billard. Gord has been a member of TakingITGlobal since 2012 and recently received a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. It was so profound for me to join this process and I look forward to seeing the final edited version of what we produced together!
Moving forward, the key issues that emerged from my discussions with youth who I met in Arviat this past week are the following:
1) Food security and access to nutrition
2) Isolation, Bullying and suicide
3) Literacy and access to education.
I believe that programs can be expanded to focus on the following:
1) Ensure that the design of school breakfast and community Food Bank programs reach children and youth who are both in school and out of school. Ensure that the nutritional value of food purchased and shipped into Arviat is healthy. Support health education programs among youth so that they understand the importance of healthy eating. This approach might have youth volunteers learning how to cook and then together with members of the community, preparing meals and feeding it to those in need at scheduled times within any given week.
2) Arts-based activities along with exercise and wellness programs that promote dignity, inclusion, healing, creativity and self-expression among children and youth. This can involve a combination of guided group activities to develop skills and confidence as well as individualized encouragement to simply encourage participation and idea exchange. Having walls and rooms to showcase the artwork is essential. The aim here is to foster a sense of hope and to promote values of treating one another with care, compassion and kindness.
3) Promote a culture of reading by ensuring every child has at least one book at home in both English and Inuktitut that they can call their own. It is also essential to establish a reading culture through formal and informal activities, reaching children who are both in and out of school. This can include story time each day at the library, Read-a-Long sessions where teens are reading stories to children that are filmed and aired on Arviat TV as well as book clubs where participants can have a chance to speak with others about the books they are reading.
My final recommendation is that leaders and policy makers in Canada take the time to travel to Nunavut and seek to increase their own understanding of Inuit people and the challenges they face. We need to be asking critical questions about why so many aboriginal peoples are trapped in cycles of poverty while also recognizing the profound resilience of all First Peoples who have thrived for thousands of years before Canada was formed. Community consultations are essential and jobs can be created for Inuit people to help with interpretation and co-facilitation to ensure that their ideas, aspirations and hopes are represented in national debates. In the future, I hope to bring together a group of Canadian leaders to Arviat in order to discuss these issues further while providing additional support and capacity where needed.