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Inuit in crisis: Canada failing northern peoples


By Jennifer Ashawasegai Windspeaker Contributor OTTAWA







Inuit in Canada have a shorter life expectancy than other people in Canada. That from a report entitled ‘Life is Short’ from the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for the North.

The report indicates the average Inuit life expectancy is 66.7 years. The national average life expectancy is 81 years. Inuit life expectancy is also lower than the life expectancy of First Nations men and women.

According to a 2005 Health Canada study, the life expectancy for a First Nations man is 68.9 years, while a First Nations woman has a life expectancy average of 76.6 years.

Udloriak Hanson, spokesperson for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), attributes the lower life expectancy to a number of factors. She says the report takes into consideration several things including, “a high suicide rate, unhealthy conditions like over-crowded houses, as well as a fairly high accident rate.”

ITK President Mary Simon said in a statement that the gap in life expectancy is nothing new.

“I have been underlining this very unfortunate statistic in many of my public speeches over the past five years. It is a sad fact that the life expectancy between Inuit and the average Canadian is 13 years, and that gap is not closing.”

Although the gap is wide and has been for many years, Hanson said there are things that can be done to minimize or close the gap. First and foremost, the most obvious action that can be taken is to have more houses.
“Over-crowded housing is a real epidemic in our communities,” she said.

The other epidemic, she says, are suicide rates.

”We have 11 times the national average and, typically, our youth are taking their lives. And if this weren’t the case, our life expectancy would definitely increase.”

She says information about health and safety needs to get out in communities more to reduce the accident rate. Hanson says although there are many Health Canada programs, they could be improved through more prevention and awareness campaigns.

Diet is another factor.

“There needs to be healthy eating promotion along with good food preparation and the promotion of country food. Country food is most healthy for Inuit.“

But, she says, hunting can get costly, and hunters used to be subsidized. That’s not the case any longer with a new program called Nutrition North. The Nutrition North program provides subsidies to retailers so they can provide food at a lower cost.

To really address the suicide rates in Inuit communities, more mental health services need to be provided to communities.

“We’ve been asking for quite some time for a national Inuit suicide prevention strategy. There are regional suicide prevention strategies, but there needs to be a concerted effort across Inuit regions on a national strategy.”

Hanson also says, “We don’t have mental wellness centres or services at the community level and we need these services in place for youth and others to lead a healthy life.”

Just over two weeks after the release of the life expectancy report, ITK put out a call for an immediate response to an Arctic mental health crises. A statement from Mary Simon urgently pleaded for an investment into community mental health services. That call followed the suicides of two teenage girls in Northern Quebec, the deaths of four family members in one home in Iqaluit and a one-man stand-off with police in Nunatsiavut. The incidents all happened within the past several months.
Federal Health Minister Leonna Aglukkak announced $27 million to go towards mental health projects in rural and urban Aboriginal communities, but, on top of that, Simon has requested a one-time $15 million investment over five years for Inuit mental health programs in the country’s four Inuit regions.

In her plea, Simon said, “... Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut are in a social crisis. We must respond with extraordinary measures – measures commensurate with the magnitude of the issue. Our people are dying. We need help and we need it now.”

The Conference Board of Canada report also stated, “If Nunavik were a country, it would place 133rd in world rankings for life expectancy—behind such countries as Uzbekistan, Tonga, and Iraq.”