Can social advocacy office save the children?
Premier’s initiative comes as photo highlights kids’ plight
Nunavut’s Premier Eva Aariak is setting up a “social advocacy office” to look out specifically for the needs of children, youth, the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled and other Nunavummiut with special needs.
The office, which will have a staff of four and a budget of $876,000, has been included in the 2009-2010 budget, and will be lodged in the premier’s own department: Executive and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Aariak told Nunatsiaq News she hopes to start focussing in the fall on “building the structures and legislation necessary to create this type of office.”
The initiative is especially timely, coinciding as it does, with the public outcry over a photo of two young children who spent the night of July 26 on the streets in Iqaluit.
The two boys, identified by police as under 10 years old, were photographed by Amanda Eegeesiak at 6:30 in the morning as they slept amid the garbage in front of Northmart.
Eegeesiak also notified the RCMP, although one of the boys had gone (presumably home) before police were able to respond.
The photo of the two youngsters stirred up an emotional storm when it was published on the Nunatsiaq News website last week, and then in the paper.
Stories followed in many other media, both local and national — including front page coverage in the Globe and Mail and broadcasts on APTN and CTV.
The photo also drew literally hundreds of reader comments, on both the Nunatsiaq Online and CBC websites. People lined up to castigate government and parents for allowing the situation to occur, although many pointed out this is not a new crisis.
Others took up MLA — and now justice minister — Keith Peterson’s longtime call for a child advocacy desk within the Government of Nunavut.
Aariak’s social advocacy office, now in the works, would seem to be partly a response to lobbying from Peterson, but with a more wholistic mandate, based on the premier’s perception of the needs.
In an interview, Madeleine Redfern, executive director of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s Truth Commission and a graduate of the Akitsiraq law school, agreed that kids on the street is not a new problem.
The two children chose a more public area than most kids, she said, but “being part of the community, you’re well aware of the number of children of varying ages, who don’t choose to go home some nights.”
They sleep in stairwells, stay up all night, or in the winter, couch surf at friends’ homes.
There are lots of reasons, related to problems in the home, she said. “It could be drinking, fighting, overcrowding — these are all social problems we are well aware of.”
The main difference now, Redfern argued, is that “we have half-million-dollar homes in Iqaluit. While we have a middle class and an upper-middle class now, not everybody is benefitting from the creation of the territory.”
According to Revenue Canada, a mere one per cent of the Nunavut population receives fully one-third of territorial income, Redfern said.
The situation is way too complex to simply put the blame on the parents, she added.
“It’s important to support Peterson’s drive for a child advocacy office. We need a dedicated office to champion children’s rights.”
“It’s something to be worried about, and to work on,” Bill Riddell, a justice of the peace and longtime social activist in Iqaluit, said in an interview.
“But it’s not a new crisis. It has been going on for years. That photo is so graphic, it’s got people reacting.”
Riddell felt that Nunavut has enough social services in place to look after most of its problems, although CBC radio reported recently that about 50 per cent of all social worker positions in Nunavut are currently vacant.
“It would be a mistake to see this event as a symptom only of poverty,” he added. “There are families not suffering from poverty where children also don’t go home. And I know people in poverty who look after their children very, very well.”
Adapting to the change from life on the land to life in a settled community, is also part of the challenge, Riddell speculated.
The land ethic is one of non-interference, he said. You watch your children and look out for them, but you give them space to experiment and learn on their own.
With the move to a town, where you don’t know everybody, you have to question when it’s appropriate to stick your nose in somebody else’s business.
The reality, he said, is that “we all should interfere when we see something like this.”
While an emergency shelter for children might be a good idea, Riddell said, the children who need it most are often the ones least likely to know about it. They are alienated from the structures created to help them.
He recalled using “detached workers,” relatively young people without an office themselves, whose job is simply to hang around with kids, and get to know their issues, so they can steer them in the direction of the services they need.
It used to work well, he said, until it died from lack of core funding. Maybe now would be a good time to revive the practice — although he added there is no “one, simple solution.”
In the white-hot discussion spawned by publication of the photo, political and community leaders seem to generally agree that all levels of government and institutions need to work together to address the issue in a wholistic manner.
“Everybody needs to look at the whole issue,” Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. vice-president James Eetoolook said. “And we need to work together. I don’t think the government can do things alone.”
“We’ve been reactive,”he added. “Unless we’re proactive, the situation is not going to get better.”
“Remember that saying, it takes a whole community to raise a child,” said Iqaluit mayor Elisapee Sheutiapik, who is also the Iqaluit rep for Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. “All of us have a role to play — including the city.”
She said city recreation staff know there are kids who sometimes don’t want to go home when the rec facilities close for the night.
Sheutiapik suggested an emergency shelter to help deal with such situations. There needs to be something between doing nothing and taking the children away from the parents.
Sometimes the kids just need an alternative for a night or two, she suggested, when things get out of hand for single parents who are doing their best, but maybe feeling overwhelmed.
That’s why more support programs for parents who are stretched to the limits of their resources is also important, Pauktuutit President Rhoda Innuksuk said.
“We can help the young people directly, but we need to deal with the core of the problem. If we can help parents with addictions problems, it might save a few more children.”
Pauktuutit has been offering programs like “Born on the Land” and “Healthy Babies,” she said, to teach young women what to do when they are pregnant.
But we need more, she added. These problems are prevalent throughout the north, in all communities.
“From the time children are conceived to when they are old enough to be on their own, we all have to work to make sure they are safe and sound.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the two young children in the photograph were male.
“I’m hearing more and more concern from my constituents about men’s issues,” Aariak said in her interview.
“We find young boys committing suicide, not graduating, not getting into good jobs.”
And Redfern noted that she’s had a homeless man sleeping in her shed since March. “I haven’t had the heart to kick him out.”
All these issues seem to add up, in Aariak’s mind, to the need for the social advocacy office, to at least try to address them all in an integrated manner.
“We know that neither the $876,000 budget for the Social Advocacy Office nor the four staff members will be able to meet all of the program needs, but that is not the intent of creating the office,” she said.
Instead, the priority is on “developing and integrating the necessary programs and policies across the government for helping those at greatest risk.”
Aariak noted that in the current budget, the government has dedicated nearly $7.67 million specifically towards programming for children and youth, including sports programs, day care, student employment, community youth programs and health and nutrition.
Other, core programming for that age group includes:
- $135 million for primary and secondary education
- $6 million for child protection services;
- $2.6 million on early childhood education; and
- $2.3 million on the young offenders program.
Apparently, it’s not enough — unless Aariak’s social advocacy office can make it all work better.
A tall order.