Seeing is believing

Federal bureaucrats tour Nunavik and Nunavut



A delegation of Ottawa bureaucrats wrapped up a historic tour of Nunavik and Nunavut last week, vowing that their first-hand look at health centres, schools and public housing will lead to more Inuit-friendly social and economic policies.

The five-day tour was sponsored by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) and funded by the federal government. Comments raised from a debriefing session this month will be used to determine whether similar tours will take place.

“It was an eye-opener,” said Michelle Kovacevic, a senior policy and briefing advisor with Health Canada who visited Kuujjuaq, Iqaluit and Cape Dorset during the First Inuit Arctic Tour.

Despite the long-standing need for more doctors and nurses in Iqaluit, Kovacevic said she learned in Cape Dorset that the community needs supplies, not staff.

“Just the little things we never think about here, like a [photocopier] that had been broken for months. Somethings that make your day-to-day life simpler. In the North there’s no one there to fix it and it goes on hold,” she said.

She added the trip, including a look at crumbling public housing units, will help her when she meets with federal deputy ministers in the future.

Tour organizers chose the communities based on their size, proximity to Ottawa and capacity to handle 18 people – 11 federal employees, the seven ITK staff.

The tour began at the Larga Baffin boarding home in Ottawa. The next three days were spent in Kuujjuaq, where the group met with mayor Michael Gordon, Johnny Adams, president of the Kativik Regional Government, and Pita Aatami, president of Makivik Corp.

Robert Martel, ITK’s chief operating officer, said future tours are already being discussed.

“We would see doing this once a year and varying the locations. Next time we’d like to visit Labrador and the western Arctic. Our hope is with time we won’t have to be beating down the bushes to solicit interest. This year was a challenge since it was the first time, some people were hesitant to devote a whole week but interestingly enough, after about three days participants said they wished they had more time because there’s so much to learn and do,” Martel said.

His hope is such tours will become a “must-do” for civil servants in the 15 main federal departments. He said the purpose of the project is relationship building, not just between government officials but with the mayors, nurses and people in the communities.

Admittedly, the federal government could have organized a similar trip on its own.

“It’s the responsibility of every official to educate themselves on the context of their work life and responsibilities…. I’m not naïve enough to think this is the kind of trip you can plan yourself and say we’re sending 10 people up and we’re just going to tour.

“ITK is the window for the federal government into Inuit communities and we have a shared role to play. And yes in theory they could have been more proactive but I’m pleased with the outcome. The response from participants has been excellent,” Martel said.

The issue of public housing, which was dropped by the federal government in 1990s, needs revisiting, he said.

“We feel perhaps the decision to cease the support for Inuit was made in the absence of knowledge and I would hope the officials would see there are not a lot of alternatives. We can’t just sell this on a heartstring saying poor people in small houses. Hopefully the government officials have learned that the cost savings in health, education and other issues have their roots in housing. From a cost avoidance perspective, I would hope they can see they can play a role,” Martel said.

Patricia Tremblay, a CMHC representative, toured homes and spoke with housing authorities staff.

Certainly, it’s not the first time federal officials have toured the North. However, this trip was unique because of the number of departments who participated: the privy council office, justice, health, finance, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Canada, Infrastructure Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

Stephen Hendrie, ITK’s director of communications, has high hopes for future tours.

“When it comes to official Throne Speeches of budgets, Inuit are falling off the page, falling off the radar screen. The Government of Canada is currently speaking about aboriginal people but really they’re about First Nations,” he said.

“We’re trying to drive home the point that Inuit are not First Nations and that Inuit are different. They are Canadian citizens, which sets them apart from First Nations, and that they have distinct needs because of they live in the biggest geographic region in Canada and a lot of what Canada is drafting in policies does not help that region.”

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