In defense of Inuit parents

The Globe and Mail published an article reporting some troubling statistics earlier this week: Inuit child mortality is 3.6 times the national average and 70% of preschoolers live in homes where they don’t have consistent access to nutritious food.  These were the findings of reports published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that I have yet to read.

The Globe article – which I am sure was intended to be informative  – provides no context whatsoever for these statistics.  Since Monday night, when it was first available online, it has read “More to come”, but has yet to be updated.  I am sure that there was no pressing need to report those statistics immediately: although just released, they are not new or very surprising to people who live and/or work in the North.  The story wasn’t going to go away if they postponed publishing for a day or two and spent some time getting their story straight. I believe it was irresponsible for the Globe to publish the article without context, given then fact that there was no need to rush to publication, and the fact that the full reports themselves were available. The Chronicle Hearld’s article got it right.  Or at closer, at least.  I didn’t go to school to be a journalist, so perhaps I am missing something about this situation, but I’d like to think that we go for quality over getting it done.

Since the article didn’t do more that report the bad news, I’d like to provide some brief thoughts in defense of Inuit parents.  The apparently ignorarnt people who have chosen to comment on the Globe’s public forum, and the journalist who stopped writing after stating the stats would do well to take some notes.

Let’s be clear about a few things: the only community in Nunavut with a doctor year-round is Iqaluit.  Every other community here has nurses and/or nurse practitioners, and are visited by doctors and other specialists a handful of times throughout the year.  In some communities, one nurse is responsible for all health needs of the entire population.

Pregnant women are flown to Iqaluit – their partner’s expenses are not covered – at least 2 weeks before they are due, and stay for at least 2 weeks after their child is born.  After that, they are flown back to communities where nurses are responsible for their care.  If a medical emergency arises that cannot be addressed by the nurse, they must be medically evacuated back to Iqaluit, and sometimes even further South, depending on the situation.  This limited access to health care alone is certainly responsible for some infant mortality.

Secondly, close to 70% of Nunavummiut (the word for people who living in Nunavut) smoke.  This is an appalling statistic and is significantly higher than other parts of Canada.  But Nunavut isn’t like other parts of Canada: people do not have access to as much information as fast, information is not readily available in people’s first language, people have not participated in a cash-based economy or had access to schools for generations.  They haven’t been bombarded with “smoking is bad” messaging, because their government has been in flux and only been officially established for just over 10 years and was dealing with issues like extreme poverty and homelessness.  There are no smoking campaigns, but they are not as omnipresent as ones in the South.  Smoking here is pervasive, as is second-hand smoke.  Since smoking leads to low-birth weight babies, which puts them at risk for a whole host of complications, it makes sense that mortality is high. It doesn’t excuse it, but it makes sense.

Thirdly, food insecurity.  Think about one of your favourite vegetables. Growing up in the Niagara Region meant I had more than enough fresh local red peppers to choose from all summer long.  In the winter, when they were shipped in from places that are 2,000 kilometres away (maybe less, but just go with it) the price was that much higher.  The lesson: food from far away costs more.

Now, take the context of Nunavut: Iqaluit is 2,000 kilometres away from Ottawa (roughly the same distance as St. Catharines to Orlando, Florida) and only accessible by air and sea-lift for a few short months in the summer.  The communities are even further away, and not all of them are accessible by sea-lift in the summer.  Food here is expensive for obvious reasons.  Yes, some of the cost is subsidized (thank you, rest of Canada), but it is still significantly more than people pay in the South – and they are notably less fresh.  As well, fewer jobs mean fewer people working meaning less money to go around for things like really, really expensive food.

In addition to all these factors, it is not uncommon for 14-16 people to be sharing a house (due to a severe housing shortage and unemployment).  We aren’t talking homes the size of million dollar cottages built on Lake Muskoka or Hollywood mansions…we’re talking two bedroom, one bathroom apartments with doors to the outside that don’t quite close and windows that are boarded up in the winter to save on heating.  You try and feed that many people on a single income where food prices are easily double, sometimes more, than prices in the South.  Let me know how that goes for you.

Its easy to see why these statistics are so significantly different than other places in Canada.  Relocating all Inuit people – as one of the Globe and Mail readers suggested – isn’t going to solve the problem or make it go away because they haven’t grown up being taught to succeed in a knowledge-based economy where a high school diploma hardly means anything, amongst other reasons.  For instance, the fact that if I told you I was going to relocate you to a new city and take away everything you know, that you would probably put up a fight and not be to happy about the situation.

Inuit parents aren’t sitting around watching their kids die and go hungry while they spend money frivolously on a sweet ring tone for their phone or a manicure.  Pubilc health is doing what it can to help address these issues, but there has to be community ownership, shifts in people’s attitudes and beliefs, and a whole lot more basic needs (jobs, shelter, medical care) must be before messages such as quit smoking and eat five food groups each day are going to be heeded.

There are a lot of positive things happening here, and people are making the effort to address these issues.  But articles like the one in the Globe and Mail do nothing to help the cause, instead sending the message to Inuit people that they again have failed to meet standards that are set by ‘the rest of Canada’ instead of using positive reinforcement to point out how much less infant mortality there is than even ten years ago and giving a shout out to the great work that has happened here since self-government started ten years ago.

On a side note, Harper’s announcement that Canada’s focus at the G8 meeting will be on pushing for achievement of the Millennium Development Goal on maternal and child health internationally on the same day was just a little hard to take.  (That said, congrats Mr. Harper on choosing a pretty decent development issue to focus on.  I just hope you’ll include real sex education and not abstinence-only as a part of what you fund.  And that you’ll have money to put where your mouth is when it comes to the actual meeting).


3 thoughts on “In defense of Inuit parents

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