Inuit women mark quarter century; coping with huge issues

Still solving problems after all these years

By JOHN BIRD

Rhoda Innuksuk smiles as she looks around the meeting room in Iqaluit's Nova Hotel, where Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada has just ended the first day of its 25th anniversary annual general meeting

Pauktuutit has "been around to see all kinds of changes," she says, "from 25 years ago to now. We've dealt with all kinds of emotional issues – social abuse and violence, drugs and alcohol, tobacco, early pregnancies."

Innuksuk, who is just finishing her term as president of Pauktuutit, and who was there for the beginnings of the organization a quarter century ago, gestures at the knots of Inuit women gathered here.

They have come from all across Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, the Inuvialuit region and even from southern urban centres such as Ottawa.

"We're building a brighter future for the next generations – and further awareness of what still needs to be done in the communities," she says.

The women chat happily with one another as they pack up books and papers from the day's business, and gather coats, mitts and tote bags, preparing to move on to dinner and a free evening of visiting and catching up with old friends.

"Not long ago," Innuksuk adds by way of example, "people were smoking everywhere." She chuckles. "Twenty years ago, there would have been ashtrays all over the tables in this boardroom, and everybody would have been smoking.

"It's unthinkable now. And the same goes for many homes as well. There are more and more smoke-free homes."

That's the good news. But when it comes to the issue of violence in those homes, Innuksuk's expression grows more sober.

"That's still one of our worst problems," she says firmly. "And if children are seeing violence in their homes – or worse, being beaten – then we are not doing our job."

Innuksuk feels that the people who went to residential schools are still suffering years later. And they pass their pain on to their children and grandchildren so that even those who never had the residential school experience are being hurt by what the schools did to their elders.

"More healing needs to be done," she says. "We need to get through to the children and the grandchildren, so the next generation is better educated."

She also says Pauktuutit needs to bring healing to men as well as women if it wants to improve family life.

"We're seeking balance in families and in communities," she says. "Sharing knowledge and information is the only tool we can use."

The first day of Pauktuutit's AGM was devoted to sharing knowledge and information about how climate change is affecting the health of Inuit across Canada's north.

It started with a presentation by Diane McClymont-Peace from the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada, who gave a brief description of climate change, and an overview of how it works in the arctic.

She also encouraged Pauktuutit members to get their communities to apply for grants under the "Climate Change and Health" program.

Run by her department's environmental health research division over the next three years, the program will give out nearly $6 million to community-based research in the north, including:

  • identifying, analyzing or assessing the health risks of climate change;
  •  developing adaptations to minimize the impacts of climate change; and
  • incorporating local, traditional knowledge.

McClymont-Peace said communities, regional associations and hamlet councils and hunters and trappers associations can apply for up to $200,000 each for projects, and her department can provide advice to those who need help drafting proposals.

The deadline for this year's projects has already passed, she said, and her department had received more proposals than they could fully fund with the money allotted for this year. Next year's deadline is Jan. 22, 2010.

After breaking into two groups for spirited discussion, the Inuit women reported on the climate change effects they observed in their communities, including:

  • lower water levels in lakes and rivers;
  • new insects, other animals and plants encroaching from the south;
  • reduced sea ice, thinner pelts on seals;
  • increased stress on polar bears that is bringing them into conflict with communities,
  • melting permafrost that is shifting and "cracking up" house foundations and structures, introducing mold; and
  • more difficulty drying fish and meat due to warmer temperatures.

The AGM was to end with a banquet celebrating the organization's 25th anniversary and the announcement of the 2009 Woman of the Year.

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