Early this month, we travelled to Iqaluit as part of a team of young leaders from across the country who led a mission to the North. Known as Junior Team Canada (organized by the non-profit Global Vision), we and other young leaders ages 15-25 from the provinces and territories congregated in Nunavut to talk about resource development, linguistic preservation, safe shipping, and building sustainable communities. Students from the provinces were able to speak with many young people from the North, particularly Inuit youth from Iqaluit, as well as youth from the surrounding regions of Nunavut.
The meeting was part of Canada taking up the chair post for the Arctic Council. There are no youth on the council, but from our experience up North, including them would yield significant benefits. Along with meetings with business, political, and educational leaders, we also came to learn about the unique cultural heritage of the Inuit people and Nunavut. Nunavut is a vast land containing over 30,000 people, over 9,000 of whom live in Iqaluit alone, with a patchwork quilt of some 30 isolated communities making up the rest of the population.
Our driver around Baffin Island and the outskirts of Iqaluit – which has almost a third of Nunavut’s 30,000 people – was an Ethiopian immigrant named Joshua who took us to the edge of Frobisher Bay, where we beheld our first Arctic sunset, the sky, sea and snow reflecting a kaleidoscope of colours. He remarked that this is “the real Canada.”
We found it hard to talk at first. The Inuit we met were generally reserved with us, sometimes replying with short answers or skirting around more in-depth questions. A lot of Inuit youth are passionate about things that aren’t exactly common hobbies in the provinces, like hunting everything from seals to polar bears. Despite our enthusiasm and eagerness to connect, we didn’t always know where to start. We questioned what it really means to be Canadian, upon the realization that this identity isn’t always common ground for dialogue.
What eventually broke the ice – no pun intended – was simple, real, human connection, particularly for us older students, over some beers and good laughs. We were able to start revelling in the simple joys of our lives. We learned about some of the things to do up North, about the way of life, as well as commenting on the ups and downs of living in a big city like Toronto versus a quieter place like Iqaluit. And our conversations became serious too.
From our conversation with many Inuit, especially young people, suicide is a crisis. In a community so small, often the end of a relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend – which can be seen as one’s only option, or “only chance,” as told to us by one youth – can mean the end of a life. Having a girlfriend or boyfriend may be seen as “the only chance” because, in a community of only a few thousand at most, it may be difficult to make things work with more than a couple other individuals of the same or similar age. One might end up alone and that’s a tough future to face, especially being young.
Why is this happening? From our observations and interviews, there is a fundamental lack of access to key, culturally appropriate services. Mental health has seen a lot of interest from media and civil society in the last couple years, especially with a highly visible rise in adolescent suicides at schools and universities. Key statistics have appeared relative to depression and anxiety, and it is crucial to break down the stigma surrounding mental health issues. But, up North, according to Health Canada, the suicide rate is eleven times higher than the rest of Canada.
The logistical challenges of connecting tiny, often icebound, communities located across a region roughly the size of Germany are immense. For families, day cares are often booked to capacity, and many programs for young mothers exist only in Iqaluit. There appears to be a huge gap between what is available in Iqaluit in contrast to smaller communities, and a huge gap between what is available in Iqaluit and what is available in the provinces.
At the same time, an element of Inuit culture that surprised us was the institutionalized role of elders. If individuals have a problem, the go-to response is to “ask an elder,” because they are the ones who have “persevered” through Inuit society’s great upheaval from nomadism to permanent settlements. As it was solemnly described to us, “Elders are our jewels.” We began to reflect on what the rest of the Canada is doing for its elders, whether through retirement homes or pension plans. Perhaps the most accurate depiction we heard is that “the elders are caught between two worlds, though the young people often say they are caught in two worlds.”
When we asked some young people what we, as Southerners, could do here they suggested encouraging Canadian institutions to set up subsidiaries in Nunavut to encourage investment and provide more advanced job opportunities, facilitating greater educational exchange for Inuit youth to receive skills in the South, working to counteract brain drain, and collaborating – not dictating – on issues like youth mental health.
The Inuit youth said that they are excited to take charge of their communities and foster pan-Canadian collaborations. For Canadians from the provinces, our responsibility is helping to provide tools for Northern and Inuit communities to find success on their own terms. Empowering young leaders will help the North create this future.
Jaxson Khan is a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, a co-founder of the Globe and Mail's student advisory council, and a student at Huron University College at Western University. Maximillian Seunik is a Morehead-Cain scholar and Canadian student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.