Iqaluit social activist calls for quick action on poverty in Nunavut
“We have a serious, very serious problem”
The Government of Nunavut and Inuit organizations should get together with communities to create hunting and gathering programs for country food, David Wilman, the director of Iqaluit’s Tukisigiarvik Centre, told delegates at the opening of the Nunavut Food Security Symposium at the Iqaluit soup kitchen Jan. 21.
The symposium will look at country food access, “market food” access, policy and legislation, financial literacy, local food production, and community programs.
The three-day symposium, hosted by the Nunavut Food Security Coalition, is a step in the right direction, Wilman said.
But that’s only if governments “move from theoretical actions into very practical real action quickly,” Wilman said.
He described issues related to poverty and food that he sees at the Tukisigiarvik Centre on a regular basis.
“Over the last four years I’ve had a very unique spectacle from which to see the situation first hand,” Wilman said.
He said he’s visited many communities in Nunavut and seen extensive poverty.
Parents were saying “our children are hungry and they can’t go to school,” that they can’t afford food, and that their social assistance cheques run out with two and a half weeks left in the month, he said.
“We have a serious, very serious problem that needs to be addressed,” Wilman said.
The symposium is another welcome addition to solving food insecurity and poverty, but “we need to start acting quickly and decisively, and connecting the dots that are not being connected right now.”
Traditional food is no longer being harvested and shared because people can no longer afford the high costs of hunting.
Tukisigiarvik, a drop-in wellness and healing centre, is trying to address some of those problems, Wilman said.
Founded in 2003, after public consultation in Iqaluit, Tukisigiarvik offers programs such as: counselling, physical health and wellness programs, a daily nutritious snack program of fish, walrus, ducks, geese, ptarmigan, or rabbits, suicide intervention and suicide counselling sessions, done by male and female counsellors.
The centre has four or five elders who help with their programs, which include sewing and kamik-making, and there is one full-time hunter who works for Tukisiniarvik.
The centre also takes clients out hunting to “train them and help them learn the hunting skills.”
Any extra food left over from the healthy snack program is usually taken to elders in Iqaluit.
“We try to ensure they [the programs] are based in Inuit societal values,” Wilman said.
When trying to get counselling for clients from health and social services, “If you’re very lucky, you might get to see a counsellor,” he said.
The centre has worked with Iqaluit social workers over the years but in some Nunavut communities there are no social workers because of high stress and they leave “as a result of the pressure of the demands of the work that they are doing.”
“The situation is pretty dire,” Wilman said, adding “I’m not painting it any blacker than it is. It is a very serious situation that we need to address, so this symposium is particularly timely.”
One solution is to get money and resources on the ground to the communities that have the best resources for dealing with their own problems.
“That’s what Tukisigiarvik tries to do,” he said.
But the problem with many people is inappropriate use of resources when they have them, Wilman said.
“By that, I’m talking about going to bootleggers, spending money on bootleggers and drug dealers rather than putting food on the table,” he said.
That also means buying the wrong kinds of food.
Waiting in line at the grocery stores “you see things being bought and I wonder whether that is really wise, when our stores now have very good supplies of fresh produce, good quality, nutritious food.”
“They also have an equal amount of awful food — pop, chips, pre-made sandwiches, which must have so [many] preservatives,” Wilman said.
The centre has been running out of a rent-free building for as long as it’s been open.
If they were to pay rent, the cost would be about $85,000 a year.
“Suddenly we are going to lose that building this year, because it was bought by a developer,” Wilman said.
The building, located near Iqaluit’s old side of the hospital, will be turned into office space, he said.
Wilman hopes Tukisigiarvik will find another space for its programs.
Meanwhile, Wilman said he calls on governments to develop traditional food programs.
“Then I think we’re going to have a win-win situation… little groups like Tukisigiarvik can’t do it by themselves,” he said.