Nunavik addiction goes under the microscope

Advisors say study will help Inuit around the world



Advisors to a research team in Nunavik hope a study beginning this month will lead to better treatment facilities for Inuit alcoholics and drug addicts.

The study, which will take up to three years to complete, specifically targets youth, in hopes of better understanding their attitudes towards drug and alcohol.

A team of researchers from L’université du Québec à Trois-Rivières will meet with students, ranging in age from 11 to 18, at Jaanimmarik School in Kuujjuaq this week, to ask them about their habits and feelings related to drugs and alcohol.

The researchers hope to compile the results by September, and continue their work in three other Nunavik villages, including in-depth interviews with parents and community leaders.

Pierre Rioux, drug and substance abuse officer at the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, said the study results will provide a tool to assess the needs of the region.

“Nunavik is poor in terms of data about substance abuse,” he said. “We really have no data. We have opinions, prejudices, misconceptions and so on. Everyone agrees it [substance abuse] is a problem in Nunavik, but to what extent, no one has any idea.”

The research team completed the first part of the study in April, but found their research was based on outdated data that didn’t focus on any issues that might be unique to the Inuit, Rioux said.

Even then, results showed Nunavik suffered a 43-per-cent addiction rate, compared to 13 per cent in the South. This suggests nearly half of Nunavimmiut drank alcohol or used drugs in a way that could be described as addictive.

“That’s an example of one indicator of how bad we need services dealing with drug use,” Rioux said, adding that new statistics will enable the regional government to lobby other governments for additional funding.

Rioux, a recovering alcoholic who quit drinking eight years ago, said another advantage of the study will be to remove the taboo about discussing drugs and alcohol in Nunavik.

The study questionnaires will be anonymous, but the results will allow government to educate people more about the nature of addiction, Rioux said.

“People tend to believe users are doing that because of lack of will,” Rioux said. “It’s an issue that’s surrounded by shame and guilt because people don’t know it’s a disability, and they isolate themselves.

“Rather than keep it [addiction] in the shadows, we will bring it out in the open.”

Besides Kuujjuaq, researchers also plan to go to two villages on the Hudson coast, and another community on Ungava Bay. Rioux expects the results will show a need for more support services in the communities for residents who have gone through a detoxification program, but find it difficult to avoid returning to past, abusive habits.

More statistics on substance abuse in Nunavik will mean the region can lobby for more funding for the region’s only treatment centre, described by its own board chair as “dilapidated” and lacking staff.

Dave Forrest, head of the board for the Isuarsivik centre in Kuujjuaq, said the 60-year-old building needs to be renovated or completely replaced.

Forrest said the centre mainly takes patients from Nunavut, which lacks a treatment centre, and also needs an in-house nurse and psychologist.

“We’re always clawing and scraping by,” Forrest said of the centre’s finances.

But if the study leads to boosted funding for the centre, Forrest said improved drug and alcohol treatment in Kuujjuaq would be a victory for Inuit across the Northern hemisphere.

“We’re separated by artificial boundaries. The Inuit are Inuit whether they’re in Nunavut, the former Soviet Union, western Arctic or Greenland,” Forrest said. “This is a problem around the circumpolar world.”

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, a federal funding agency for health research, provided $225,000 for the study, expected to produce an overarching report based on results from the four communities in 2007.

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