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From birth to death

Everyone is family at Larga Baffin

By JANE GEORGE

Larga Baffin’s shady Ottawa yard will serve as a backdrop for several hours of storytelling tomorrow afternoon by Nunavut elders Jayco and Annie Peterloosie and Mariano Aupilardjuk, in an afternoon of traditional tales about the hero Kiviuq, in conjunction with the premiere of John Houston’s new film, Diet of Souls at the National Gallery on Sunday.

Tomorrow’s event is part of an effort to help residents forget their pain, boredom and loneliness when they receive medical treatment far from home.

Larga Baffin, a boarding home that serves patients and patient escorts from the Baffin region, consists of a pair of houses at 1863 Russell Street in Ottawa.

Every year, three to four thousand Baffin residents, mainly Inuit, visit Larga Baffin. Some stay for only two or three days, while others remain for months. Inside, framed photo collages feature snapshots of almost every person who’s passed through its doors.

“They’re away from their families, they’re away from their work, they’re away from just their support group, and for anyone who’s here for a while, it seems hard,” says Trudy Metcalfe, Larga’s Baffin manager.

Some even spend holidays, such as Christmas, at Larga Baffin. Then, there’s a special meal and presents for everyone.

Metcalfe, who is from Nain, Labrador, says she never forgets the difficult circumstances around each person’s stay.

“We treat them all like our own family,” she says.

During the day, nearly all the 50 or so residents – patients and their escorts – are out for medical appointments.

A bulletin board keeps track of their comings and goings.

Driver Ooleepeeka Shoo checks out the schedule as she waits for her next trip. Lena Alivaktuk Burns, who is responsible for client care and reception, juggles calls on a five-line portable phone, which rings constantly while she writes updates on the board.

Larga Baffin, Burns explains, is in charge of lodging, meals and transportation for patients and escorts in Ottawa. The two Larga Baffin buildings, known as Larga One and Larga Two, are nearly always full, so some visitors end up at a nearby motel, or at Ottawa’s Rotel residence.

Larga Baffin has its own kitchen, providing three meals a day. Donations of country food, sent free of charge via First Air, arrive regularly. There’s also a play area for kids, a pool table for adults, and storage space.

Metcalfe, a former president of the Ottawa-based Inuit community organization, Tungasuvvingat Inuit, says she jumped at the chance to run Larga Baffin because she could combine her many interests into one job.

Under her management, Larga Baffin has no heavy security, no curfew, and generous visiting hours. Fun is part of the healing. Shopping trips are scheduled every day and visitors often drop by.

“This is our peoples’ home. We don’t want to run it like a prison,” she says. “You’re free to come and go. We genuinely care, but if you’re not here by a certain hour, we worry.”

But there’s “zero” tolerance for booze, drugs, drunken and disorderly behavior, and abusiveness. Her greatest difficulties are due to residents consuming drugs and alcohol, which are easily accessible on Ottawa’s streets.

Metcalfe says she’ll call the police in if she has to, but she feels the situation is “much better” than it used to be, because everyone now knows what to expect.

“Respect us and we’ll respect you,” she says. “We stick with what we say. We want everyone to be safe. This is not a place for people to come to have a party. We need to respect why everybody is here.”

The Nunasi and Qikiqtaaluk birthright development corporations built the residence four years ago, not long after the contract to supply medical services to Baffin residents was moved from Montreal to Ottawa.

Before Larga Baffin first opened in April, 2000, all patients and escorts from the Baffin region boarded at the Rotel residence, which many said lacked the warmth, support and Inuit atmosphere of the former Baffin House in Montreal.

One expansion later, Larga Baffin is still bursting at its seams and plans are afoot to build more rooms, and a large dining area.

Larga Baffin has 26 employees, full and part-time. Three-quarters are Inuit, making Larga Baffin the second largest Inuit employer in Ottawa.

“Our mandate is to hire Inuit first,” Metcalfe says.

On sunny, warm days, staff sit outside during their breaks, mixing with residents and chatting.

For housekeeper Elizabeth Nakoolak of Coral Harbour, working at Larga Baffin provides a link to her home community, which she hasn’t seen in more than two years.

She’s in Ottawa because her daughter, seven-year-old Patrina Murphy, the first Inuk to undergo a heart transplant, must now be close to a specialized hospital.

But it’s tough, Nakoolak says, to be away from two of her sons.

“I’d love to see them,” she says.

Metcalfe gives her staff a lot of credit because they deal with everything from “birth to death” at Larga Baffin.

“They’ve taken ownership of this place,” she says. “We’re here because of the people, and we need to understand the people are here for difficult things.

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