In Kugluktuk, the C3 ship passengers had the opportunity to hear from Millie Kuliktana a long time educator. She told the story of her community’s response to a rash of tragic suicides and alcohol related deaths that took place in 1998. With her permission I share her story here (I have recorded this as closely to Millie’s words as possible, though it is not exact):
Every two weeks a suicide was happening that year. On the first day back to school that year the teachers came in, the students came to school and were told yet another student took his life that night. That was the first day back to school. And after that, I happened to be the executive director of school operations at the time and I took my program staff down and I let the teachers go do debriefing with the mental health workers and the RCMP. We took all the student population into the school gym, invited a few more parent caregivers and we locked our doors and we locked ourselves inside the gym and we said, express yourself. Write it, think it, tape it, share it, whisper it, cry about it, just express yourself, enough is enough. So once they did that they said so now what do we do? I said we tell our parents, and someone said I’m scared to. I said you know what, there is strength in numbers if we say it all at once they are not going to pick you out, they’d have to pick all of us out. We took the posters that we made, and we decided to march. At 2 pm the elementary school children poured out, the people from the men’s rehabilitation centre came out, they made banners on wooden signs that said enough is enough. So our youth marched on a rainy grey day, we marched in the town sharing a voice. That taught out community that our number one asset is our youth, the strongest people in our community are our youth. Our children are the ones we have to work through to get the message across. The march triggered various events, it forced the hamlet council to say there was going to be a liqueur plebiscite, we had a playwright come from Toronto, a man who had been sober for 30 years wanted to help. He got the students from the High School to put a play together and they performed it four days before the vote took place. They showed the community through their play, how to vote- because every suicide that year was alcohol related. 64% voted yes, we needed over 60% to put the restrictions in place, 4% never felt so good.
For several years in the late 90s, Kugluktuk had the highest suicide rate in Canada, as a result of this march and other initiatives developed in the community in response to the children’s cry for help, from 2001-2006 there were no suicides. Millie’s story highlights the need for holistic community support for young people in Nunavut. It also highlights the resilience and strength of the young people, when they are able to make their voices heard. Currently the community is running a multi-pronged mental health and family support based program entitled Moving Forward Together. This project is federally funded and is in the last year of funding for Kugluktuk. The programming is doing great things, working with parents, at risk youth, elementary students, running programs specifically for girls, and others for boys, all based out of community centre, but the issue is sustainability. Like many federal programs, although they have built in training to support local control and management, once the start up money is gone, the programs can be lost because they don’t have financial sustainability. It’s a story of too many educational programs for marginalized youth in the north and the south, where programming only survives because of dedicated volunteers and passionate educators like Millie. Educating and supporting the mental well being of children doesn’t have immediate or direct monetary returns. Nor is it highly visible like building new roads or a medical centre. I would argue it’s just as critical, because healthy educated youth lead to healthier communities. When you see the evidence programs like this make in Millie’s community you can’t imagine not having them. The question I am left to wonder about is how can this be integrated into education to reconceive the role of schools as centres of healing for communities.