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keepers of the light

by Sierra Bacquie | December 8, 2006

On October 1, 2006, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada released a three-year action plan entitled Keepers of the Light. Inuit communities are in crisis, and Keepers of the Light identifies four areas of Inuit women’s lives that require immediate attention and action:

  • Equity and Empowerment
  • Health and Safety
  • Strengthening Inuit Families
  • Inuit Women’s Independent Voice in Global Issues

Pauktuutit, the national organization that represents Inuit women, named its report for an important role that they play within their families and communities.

The quilliq is a traditional stone lamp used by the Inuit to heat and light their igloos. In the long northern winters, the quilliq is the only available source of light. Inuit women have long been the “keepers of the flame,” and have borne the responsibility for guarding and maintaining this precious lifeline.

The report identifies a critical goal for Pauktuutit, which has been advocating on behalf of Inuit women for more than 20 years. Pauktuutit seeks at last to be granted official recognition by the federal government, and join the five other formally recognized Aboriginal organizations.

the Inuit: demographics

If the average Canadian knows little about the day-to-day experience of Canada’s Aboriginal people, perhaps even less is known about the Inuit. Here are a few facts:

  • About 47,000 Inuit live in Canada, mainly in 53 isolated communities in six Arctic regions.
  • Half of the Inuit population live in Nunavut.
  • The Inuit population is young, with more than half under the age of 25 (2001).
  • Most Arctic Inuit speak or understand Inuktitut.
Inuit women’s lives: the harsh reality

The daily lives of many Aboriginal women in Canada can be difficult. In the north, people often suffer from isolation and lack of resources. The conditions Inuit women live under sound more like the plight of the forgotten in under-developed nations, rather than the experience of citizens in one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the world:

  • Life expectancy is ten years shorter for the Inuit than for those in southern Canada.
  • The teen pregnancy rate is four times higher than in the rest of Canada.
  • The suicide rate for Inuit youth is six times the national average.
  • Suicide deaths in Nunavut and Nunavik have more than doubled in the past decade.
  • The rate of reported spousal abuse in Nunavut is 6.5 times the national average.
  • There are few shelters or safe homes, and women often lose custody of their children when they flee an abusive relationship.
  • Nutritious food is scarce and prohibitively expensive. (In Pond Inlet, Nunavut, for example, in 2005, one litre of McCain's orange juice cost $21.69.) The resulting poor diet results in widespread health problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
  • Housing is inadequate and for the most part crowded, with many dwellings housing more than one family.
  • The lack of midwives and adequate pre-natal care facilities means that women with at-risk pregnancies are often air-lifted to larger communities, and must give birth in isolation, away from family, friends and support.
  • Some students must leave their communities to attend high school, and only 25% of Inuit complete grade 12.

Perhaps not surprisingly, binge drinking and the smoking of tobacco is widespread among the Inuit.

the federal government’s response

Two months passed since Pauktuutit delivered its report to the federal cabinet ministers with responsibility for women and Aboriginal peoples. Then, last week, Human Resources and Social Development Canada acknowledged receipt of the document, and invited the organization’s representatives to meet with the Director General of Aboriginal Affairs (not the Minister, as had been requested).

In those two months, the federal government has cut funding for a smoking cessation program aimed at Aboriginal people, and cancelled the previous government's Kelowna Accord, which would have provided $5-billion for improved health care, housing and education. The government also refused to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On November 20, 2006, the federal health minister announced a pilot project whereby pregnant Aboriginal women on ten selected reserves would be guaranteed regular medical checkups, counselling, and timely access to medical specialists. Inuit women are not included in the pilot program.

On December 1, 2006, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice signed the Nunavik Inuit Land Claims Agreement, which has been in negotiations for 13 years. The Inuit of Nunavut will now own 80% of the islands in the disputed region. They will receive nearly $55 million over nine years, as well as other funds and royalties related to natural resources in the region.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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