Suffer the little children

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. You’ve now seen that widely-published picture of two children sleeping beside filth and garbage outside Iqaluit’s Northmart store?

Don’t forget that this story is not a manufactured creation of the big bad media. It’s a story driven by regular people in Nunavut who saw something wrong and wanted to make it right by taking a picture and sending it to the newspaper.

Politicians take note: it’s your constituents, most of whom now make daily use of the internet, who expressed the outrage that followed our publication of the image, first on this newspaper’s Facebook page and then within the comments sections of news organizations that reported on the story, including this newspaper. You can’t blame “the media” for any of that.

Any Nunavut politician who chooses to minimize the significance of this event will do so at their own risk — because it’s your constituents who brought the story to light and now demand that governments deal with the issues it raises.

In any event, this story sheds light on some shamefully neglected realities, especially the Government of Nunavut’s handling of child welfare and family support matters.

When he sat as a regular member of the last legislative assembly, Cambridge Bay MLA Keith Peterson mounted a lonely campaign to establish a children’s rights advocate for Nunavut.

He did this because Nunavut is one of only three jurisdictions in Canada without some kind of child welfare monitoring office; the other two are Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories.

A children’s advocate would oversee and investigate conditions within foster homes and ensure that the territorial government properly implements child welfare laws and regulations.

At the time, Peterson found no support for the idea within government, and little support within the regular members’ caucus. In the same way, groups and individuals in Iqaluit who years ago called for the creation of a children’s shelter also found little support.

But the emotional energy generated by the publication of last week’s pictures ought to provide regional politicians with the motivation that until now has been absent.

First, the Government of Nunavut must order a credible third-party review of Nunavut’s child welfare system. That’s because the territorial government will need solid evidence to make good decisions on these issues. Any future decisions should not be based on shallow perceptions and prejudices.

Second, the Government of Nunavut must move forward on the idea of setting up a childrens’ rights advocate.

Third, the Government of Nunavut should review its systems for supporting families, especially single parent families, to build evidence on which to base future decisions aimed at helping families.

It’s likely that such reviews will produce a lot of unwelcome information. That’s what happened in Nunavik, when the Quebec human rights and children’s rights commission examined the youth protection system in that region.

What they found in Nunavik was shocking and, we hope, embarrassing for political leaders and administrators in northern Quebec. If the cloak of secrecy were ever lifted from Nunavut’s child welfare system, it’s highly likely that similar shocks would occur.

It’s also likely that such a review would shatter many tired old myths in Nunavut, especially those surrounding the family.

In 2002, Statistics Canada reported that in 2001, one out of every four families in Nunavut was headed by a single parent. They also found that 22.3 per cent of children in Nunavut were being raised by a single parent.

They also found that 30.8 per cent of children were being raised by common-law couples, while less than half — 46.8 per cent — were being raised by married couples.

This suggests there are numerous single-parent, single-income families in Nunavut who struggle every day to care for their children. That may be the situation of the single parent of the children involved in last week’s Northmart pictures. Think about that before you make any harsh judgments. She’s entitled to compassion, not condemnation.

Nunavut leaders should also take note of recently-released information from the 2007-08 Qanuippitali Inuit health survey.

Their preliminary results show that about half of Nunavut children aged three to five don’t get enough food to eat, and that seven of 10 Nunavut families go hungry for at least part of the year. Another study found that more than half of pregnant women in the Baffin region don’t get enough to eat.

This raises a frightening prospect — that an entire generation of deprived, underdeveloped children are now growing into adults who will face serious health problems and emotional issues for their entire lives.

But if you’re looking for encouragement, don’t forget this: last week, hundreds of regular people in Nunavut showed that they still care. We hope our political leaders pay attention. JB

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