Community's teens skip school as partying, pandemonium beckon

Dropping out to world of booze, crime


KUGLUKTUK – The high school's halls and classrooms are as silent as falling snow when only 33 of 154 students showed up for class on a recent Monday morning.

Nathan Ayaligak, one of the few Grade 12 students in class that day, says his parents give him a second-hand snowmobile for every year he stays in school.

Ayaligak and his classmates in Jo-Ann Macdonald's northern studies course don't come from perfect households: one says he doesn't want to end up an alcoholic like his parents.

They persevere though a combination of self-discipline and a desire to succeed.

But many of their peers fall by the wayside.

Kugluktuk has the highest rate of youth crime in Nunavut. One in 10 teens aged 12 to 18 are in some form of trouble with the law or subject to court orders, says Larry Whittaker, the probation officer.

The community sends more young offenders to the youth detention facility in Iqaluit than any other place in the territory, and many have been in and out of detention for years.

To end the cycle of youth crime and failure, MacDonald's students say Kugluktuk needs more jobs, a hockey rink that works and, above all, less booze.

"It's 90 per cent of the problem," says Duane Evaglok, who will graduate later this year.

Police also say booze is involved in most crimes. There are no limits on alcohol orders in Kugluktuk. In 2004, a year marred by violence, residents voted against setting limits on the amount of booze flowing into the community.

When supplies run out, bootleggers sell 40-ounce bottles for $400 a piece.

On the streets, where snowmobiles speed by and couples walk together holding hands, there are few hints of Kugluktuk's troubled side, where theft, spousal abuse, gambling, and vandalism are commonplace.

The students say their friends drop out and commit crimes because they're bored, addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many have alcoholic or abusive parents. They're looking for some stability in their lives – even if it's found in jail instead of at school.

In May, there were 30 fewer students enrolled at the Kugluktuk's high school than last September. Some kids never showed up. Or they turned 16 during the school year and were able to legally drop out.

Principal Richard Harrington says daily school attendance nose-dived last month after the Nattiq Frolics, Kugluktuk's spring festival, when students got used to partying all night and sleeping all day. The hamlet has a 10 p.m. curfew, but police and hamlet officials say that's impossible to enforce.

Even at its best, high school attendance during the past year was spotty, Harrington admits. Usually about 50 to 60 show up on Monday, he says, with more students arriving after lunch than when school starts at 9 a.m. Sometimes classes have no students at all.

Teachers say it's tough to teach a class with one student, but even harder to teach when kids roll in throughout the day.

Many kids start playing hooky in elementary school and then appear in school only infrequently – if at all – during their high school years. Teachers and school administrators visit and call the students' homes, urging them to come and stay in school, but with little impact.

"The school can only do so much," Harrington says. "Sending letters is a fruitless exercise."

But attendance at the high school is actually better now than in previous years. The non-profit Grizzly organization has been the heart of the community's stay-in-school program since 2001, using sports to encourage school attendance and healthy living.

The high school also tries to boost attendance through its pre-trades program where students are expected to show up nearly every day.

The hamlet is doing what it can to improve school attendance and youth crime, says Derek Power, the mayor of Kugluktuk, who is also a father of five.

"It weighs on us. In reality, there is just so much we can do," he says.

Surveillance cameras are going up in hot spots around town to prevent vandalism. And the hamlet has also set up a new youth justice committee to keep some youth out of the court system.

But Power says he'd like to see parents face more consequences when don't send their kids to school, such a penalty on their child tax credit.

Police hope the presence of Pamela Bolt will help this summer. She's a local student who started work May 21 after finishing the RCMP's aboriginal youth training program in Regina, and will help with community policing and crime prevention activities.

The hamlet's two by-law officers are also slated to become full-fledged RCMP community constables.

Until recently, the RCMP struggled to police the community with only three or four members. There are now six RCMP assigned to Kugluktuk – four constables, a corporal and a sergeant – up one member from last year.

Sgt. Chris Bewsher says police now have the manpower to plan school visits to encourage youth to stay on track.

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