Nunavut’s teen mothers face difficult adjustments

Many teenage girls are not aware of the difficult lives they may lead when they get pregnant too early.


IQALUIT – It’s no wonder that Bernice Niakrok thought it was a good idea to to do her Northern Studies’ term project on the escalating birth rate in Arviat.

Every year at Arviat’s Qititliq High School, between 10 and 15 students from age 13 and up become pregnant. Most of the first-time mothers in Arviat are teens, many of whom are Niakrok’s friends and schoolmates.

“It’s a big thing here in the community,” said Niakrok, a Grade 10 student at Qititliq High School in Arviat.

Pregnant teens stay in school for as long as possible, splitting their time between classes and the “healthy moms, healthy babies” program at the community health centre.

After they give birth, those who give up their babies for adoption often return immediately to school. Those who decide to keep their babies get priority at a daycare centre located right next to the school.

“But a lot of them find it’s difficult to get transitioned back to school after they have a baby,” said Rob Davies, Qititliq’s principal.

Inuit Child First, Indigenous Services Canada

Difficult transition

It certainly wasn’t easy transition back to school for Susan Okotak, a tutor at Qititliq School.

Okotak became pregnant when she was in Grade 11. She was only 16 when her son was born, and she lost almost a full semester’s worth of school time between the time of his birth and the beginning of the following school year.

The challenge of going back to school and making it through to graduation was hard, Okotak recalls. It was tough, not only because she had a baby to look after, but also because she no longer enjoyed the life of a carefree young person.

“I lost my freedom,” Okotak said.

Okotak now urges teenage girls in school to think about what pregnancy will mean to their lives.

Government of Nunavut, Employment Opportunities

“I want them to look at themselves,” Okotak said. “And I tell them to be careful with themselves. If they want something in the future, they should work at it.”

Family life teacher Crystal Burgess said she always tries to talk about birth control to her sexually active students.

“Sometimes caution just goes to the wind, though, or girls say oh, I’ll just make a baby, but I’ve been concentrating on the girls’ self-esteem and putting them in charge of their bodies,” Burgess said.

Little progress

Burgess thinks she’s seeing a little progress, but she’s also convinced the issues underlying teen pregnancy are more complicated than merely providing contraception.

She’d like to see more information offered in Inuktitut in the schools, starting at Grade 5, more outside activities in the community, and more counselling available outside of school.

“The social workers are dealing with money issues and crises, and the kids need counselling and therapy,” Burgess said.

Yet there is only one community health representative, Obid Anoee, serving all of Arviat’s entire population. Anoee has to deal with many pressing issues in addition to teen pregnancy, such as sexually transmitted diseases or suicide.

It’s a very large order for one man.

“I feel there should be another CHR,” Anoee said. “Sometimes it’s up to a point where some things I have to do, I put off.”

Anoee does what he can, nevertheless. He goes into the schools, meeting classes, and, most recently, speaking separately with teenage boys.

“I tell them whenever teenage girls start to get their periods, they can get pregnant,” Anoee said. “If a teenage girl and they are having unprotected sex, they have to be careful. I’ve told them they can be fathers.”

Parents oppose condom use

But Anoee has to be careful himself about how much information he provides, and, since a difficult run-in with parents, he’s no longer at ease giving instructions on condom use.

“One time I brought in different colours of condoms with the condom demonstration kit. The parents weren’t too happy,” Anoee recalled. “They were saying something like we were encouraging sex by showing colourful condoms.”

Condoms are, however, still freely available at the local health centre.

“We offer condoms, and sometimes they go out of stock, but we’re not too sure if kids are using them or just playing with them. It’s hard to tell,” Anoee said.

The nursing staff at the health centre has trouble simply keeping on top of the many health problems facing Arviat’s growing young population, and there’s never enough time for prevention.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” said one nurse.

Arviat’s extraordinarily high rate of teen pregnancy and the lack of enthusiasm for birth control also appears to be linked with a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

But despite the concern of educators and health workers, many youth don’t seem to take these high incidences very seriously.

When the high rates for STD’s in Arviat were posted in around town, showing Arviat’s top position, many were reportedly impressed rather than worried. “We’re winning!”, they said.

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