ICC develops circumpolar Inuit health plan

“Some changes were good, but others were devastating”


Drugs and alcohol and the social damage caused by their abuse affects “all of us,” Edward Itta, mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough, told Inuit delegates during a June 30 discussion of health and well-being at the Inuit Circumpolar Council general assembly in Nuuk.

Removal of children from their families, language loss, and the introduction of western institutions and nuclear family housing have affected the health and well-being of Inuit around the circumpolar world, said Edna McLean, the president emeritus of the Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska.

“Some changes were good, but others were devastating, like the abuse of drugs and alcohol and the loss of intergenerational communication,” said McLean.

In Chukotka, many of the region’s Inuit families are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, dependence and alcohol abuse, Elvira Tyunikova of Chukotka said.

But ICC has a plan to deal with Inuit health and social problems, said Nunavik’s Minnie Grey, a member of ICC-Canada’s health committee.

Its members have developed a circumpolar Inuit health strategy to remedy the “stark differences [which] still remain between key health indicators for Inuit and those of the broader national populations” in Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada, in such areas as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections, suicide, injuries, family violence, addictions and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Although the poor health and well-being of Inuit seems “grim,” Grey reminded ICC delegates that “we have come a long way in improving our health.”

The new health strategy will see ICC using its circumpolar role to push for changes in policies that are “at odds” with Inuit health and wellness, Grey said.

Under the strategy, ICC will also:

• improve awareness of Inuit health and wellness issues across the Arctic;

• encourage greater focus on Inuit health and wellness issues through ICC’s representation on international organizations;

• support improved understanding by health professionals of Arctic/Inuit specific issues; and,

• promote research to improve Inuit health and wellness.

ICC will also document information from the Inuit regions for ICC to use locally, regionally and nationally, as well as at the Arctic Council, where ICC sits as a permanent participant.

The four-year plan would also see ICC encourage “Inuit-specific and culturally relevant training” for non-Inuit health professionals to address the limited understanding of health professionals of Arctic and Inuit specific issues.

A return to traditional family values, backed up by elected leaders who take influence for their communities’ health and well being, also part of the solution, Grey said.

This was echoed by other speakers, who also underlined the importance of good parenting and teaching children their Inuit language and culture as well as “safe havens” for children who need to escape from turbulent families.

Social and health problems are “weakening us as a people,” said Aleqa Hammond, the leader of Greenland’s Siumut party and ICC delegate, during a discussion about the strategy.

“We all are affected by violence, “ said Elisapie Sheutiapik, an ICC delegate and mayor of Iqaluit, who promoted her project to see an “Angel” street named in Iqaluit and other municipalities, to recognize the victims of domestic violence.

“In order to find solutions we have to talk about our problems. You can also do this in a positive fashion,” added Sheutiapik, who wore a bilingual Angel St. T-shirt as she spoke.

Mike Hoffman, a delegate from Bethel, Alaska said his region has the highest levels suicide and joblessness in the state.

“We realize there is no quick fix… we never give up here,” Hoffman said, telling about his community’s success in reintroducing Yupik as the language of elementary school instruction.

But the challenges remain greater in Chukotka where delegates spoke about the loss of their language among the region’s 1,500 Yupik, who now speak mainly in Russian.

“Our language is more of a decoration. We don’t use it in everyday life and we don’t use it in such important meetings as this one. We don’t hear it,” said Valentina Leonova.

For Mary Simon, the discussions pointed out that without a healthy Inuit society the benefits from economic benefits won’t mean anything, and, without the Inuit language, the culture will be threatened.

Simon said she hoped ICC delegates would support a Nuuk declaration spelling about ICC’s renewed focus on health and well being.

“We can’t develop our resources and communities’ future without healthy individuals,” agreed Itta, who, as ICC’s vice-president, chaired the June 30 session.

Read the full draft of ICC’s circumpolar Inuit health strategy, posted below:

ICC Circumpolar Inuit Health Strategy 2010-2014

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