Harper’s Northern Strategy fails northern people


Special to Nunatsiaq News

The Globe and Mail’s recent front-page picture of young boys sleeping outside in Iqaluit, and the accompanying story about homelessness in Nunavut, shows how bad things are for a growing underclass.

With the Inuit population doubling every 25 years, the Harper government’s Northern Strategy is neither new for northern people, nor strategic.

For housing, for example, the strategy provides $200 million more over two years, assuming that’s new money. That would build about 600 homes in Nunavut.

When questioned about homelessness, Nunavut’s premier, Eva Aariak, accused reporters of negativity and said the territory got 935 new houses in the past five years.

However, a report by Bayswater Consulting found that Nunavut needed 275 new units every year just to keep up with population growth. Of a total of 7,200 units, all needing work, they said that each year 300 additional units were needed for replacement, or for major renovation of housing that is often vandalized.

Therefore, the strategy slows only marginally the rate of increase in the housing deficit that often has a dozen people, or more, living in a two-bedroom home. Using Bayswater’s assumptions, the deficit has actually increased by 2,000 units in the past five years despite the 935 additions.

Qualified and well-paid workers should provide their own housing. However, good jobs require qualifications and a prerequisite of qualifications is effective education. Effective education requires an adequate home environment for children, and that completes the loop, demonstrating the need for housing.

Much of the thrust of current Inuit policy is toward preservation of culture, but without identifying from which era. This thrust conflicts with human-rights theory and economic imperatives requiring education and training for everyone as equal Canadians,

The land-based lifestyle has passed as surely as that of their approximate European counterparts, the crofters of the Outer Hebrides and Ireland’s potato farmers.

In 1952, a major northern strategy conference resolved “that the educational program should be directed to fitting Eskimos [Inuit] to take over as many of the jobs as possible that may become available in the North Country.”

There are now far more jobs in Arctic and sub-Arctic Canada than there are Indians and Inuit of employable age, but many require far more education and training than most northerners have any hope of getting.

Half a century on, Inuit ought to be qualified for skilled jobs in their own land, as mining engineers and geologists, doctors, accountants, ship’s captains, marine biologists and artisans’ trades.

The new $32-million “culture school” in Clyde River, better named “the Stone Age Academy,” won’t match graduates with jobs.

In 1963 anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote: “It is criminal folly to suggest, as is often done, even today, that we should encourage Eskimos (Inuit) to take up again the life of their forefathers, and endeavour to recover their independence by hunting and fishing…

“Hunting and fishing may provide them with food and even clothing, but it cannot bring in the income they need to buy rifles and ammunition, boats and outboard motors, and all the other articles of civilization without which they would perish almost as rapidly as we would.”

Jenness wrote that before the fur trade collapsed, taking with it most of the remaining economic base.

There are two main reasons why policy has gone astray. The first is that Canadians have been sold on the abstract idea of a pre-industrial Aboriginal Fantasyland. The second is that an entire industry, including Inuit leaders and academics, depends on that backward-looking iconography.

Doubtless, there will be more northern development, but that’s not new. However, since the Klondike gold rush in the 1890s, real economic activity has mostly bypassed Indians and Inuit. The strategy still requires almost $40,000 annually of taxpayers’ money, per person, without enabling the next generation for opportunities in the modern economy.

Effective education and training for professions and trades starts in infancy with dedicated parenting, and then proceeds to goal-oriented schooling. To that end, many parents and children desperately need help that works, but they don’t get it.

There are no Head Start programs in northern communities, although Indians and Inuit have them in Ottawa. School attendance is not enforced, and Nunavut discarded Canadian standards because few students could meet them.

The few mostly female Inuit high-school graduates require only one subject — like art! Then remedial skills training for under-educated adults is too little, too late.

Many Inuit youth are unmotivated, unhappy and angry, knowing they are short-changed. That’s why young males have the world’s highest suicide rate. That’s why Nunavut has Canada’s highest rates of crime — much of it violent — and teenage pregnancy.

Even in Nunavut, however, few people with satisfying jobs, or youth with career prospects, become alcoholics, commit crimes or kill themselves.

Health challenges, especially obesity, diabetes and FAS, are horrendous.

To save money on health care and crime management, why not give free membership to a YMCA or YWCA, with professional supervision, in every northern community?

Why is there no connection between the Olympic Games in Vancouver, symbolized by Nunavut’s inuksuk, and sports programs for the North? Decades ago Canadian cross-country ski teams regularly included athletes from Inuvik, but not now. That ski program totally transformed every area of community life.

As for defence, the myth developed that Inuit protect Canadian sovereignty, by living in communities having no economic justification to exist. General Walter Natynczyk has said: “Our Canadian Rangers have tremendous skills. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

More accurately, academic Whitney Lackenbauer says they are “untrained northern volunteers given only a rifle and an armband.”

Northern teenagers could use a cadet corps run in conjunction with the schools, to get the land-smarts few are now learning from their parents or in school. They also need summer camps like the ones for teenage reservists in southern Canada.

Rhoda Innuksuk, president of Pauktuutit, Inuit Women of Canada, was quoted as wondering whether there would be substance for the Northern Strategy beyond the public relations campaign.

Her justifiable scepticism seems understated when you look at what people in South Korea achieved over the past half century. Compare that with what the general population of Canada’s Indians and Inuit have achieved, as opposed to their privileged leaders.

Colin Alexander was publisher of News of the North in Yellowknife. He was the senior advisor on education for the Ontario Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, and he has been president of the Ottawa-based literacy program Sage Youth.

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