August 17, 2007

Health survey ship sparks lots of curiosity

Some wonder whether it’s a disguised sovereignty exercise

JOHN THOMPSON

People ask a lot of questions when they hear a boat full of doctors and nurses is visiting their community.

Thomas Suluk of Arviat, a land-crew member for Qanuippitali, the Nunavut Inuit Health Survey, heard many of them when he spent a week and a half visiting residents of his community in their homes to tell them what to expect when the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen arrives Aug. 18.

What's wrong with the health centre? Is there something going on we don't know about? Is this a sovereignty exercise in disguise?

He did his best to explain how the Nunavut Inuit Health Survey, which aims to conduct a battery of tests on 12 per cent of Inuit in the territory over the next two years, might help ordinary people.

Some tests look for early warning signs of diseases such as diabetes, which are believed to be on the rise in Inuit populations across the Arctic, although no rigorous survey has been done in Nunavut to show it's happening here - yet.

Grace Egeland of McGill University is coordinating the Nunavut Inuit Health Survey, an ambitious project that aims to test 12 per cent of the territory’s Inuit population for a variety of health issues, such as diabetes, stroke and heart problems. Nunavut leaders hope the project will provide ammunition to lobby the federal government for more money to address health problems and overcrowded housing.


Similar tests are conducted for high blood pressure, risk of stroke and heart problems.

Anyone tested will receive results back in two to four months, in English and Inuktitut. If they have a developing health problem, then they'll know.

The survey may also give Nunavut leaders more ammunition to lobby the federal government for more health care money.

"We're just doing as best we can to explain it'll reach the proper authorities," said Suluk.

Respondents are asked questions about how crowded their home is, for a study on Nunavut‘s housing shortage that is piggybacking on the health survey.

While Nunavut's housing shortage is obvious to many residents, providing hard numbers from a survey again helps petition the federal government.

And Suluk said some homes he visited were so crowded, "it still comes as a shock to me, and I'm an Inuk."

Grace Egeland of McGill University's Centre for Indigenous People's Nutrition, who is coordinator of the study, stresses the survey isn't meant to replace existing services offered at the community health centre. "We're really doing something extra, which will hopefully help in the long run."

"People should still go for their regular checkups."

The health survey faces some suspicion simply because it's being conducted aboard a federal ship - for the reason that bringing heavy, expensive equipment to communities by boat is far cheaper than flying it in.

"The federal government hasn't dictated one thing in the survey," Egeland said, pointing out the survey is done in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Nunavut Association of Municipalities.

Still, John Ayaruaq of Rankin Inlet, another land-crew member, has spent a lot of time reassuring residents in his community that the survey is nothing like the infamous C.D. Howe, a federal Department of Transport ship that removed Inuit who were sick with tuberculosis from their communities in the 1950s. Some never returned, and suspicion remains today.

"I'm always asked if the ship will be like the C.D. Howe, whether they will ship people out," he said. "The elders, especially, are very worried."

But when the Amundsen made its first community visit at Sanikiluaq Aug. 6, Egeland said they were warmly greeted by the mayor, Eli Kavik. A feast, throat singing, traditional dancing and a hip-hop performance were held to welcome the survey staff.

The Amundsen is to visit Kivalliq communities through August, and to visit Baffin communities through September. Kitikmeot communities will be visited next summer.

In Rankin Inlet, plans were underway Wednesday last week to hold a feast and square dance to welcome the visiting health survey staff, who were there to prepare for the Amundsen's visit on Aug. 23.

"We'll have a get-together at the hall tonight," Ayaruaq said.

"Once they have our understanding," he said of survey staff, "maybe they'll dance better."