Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic October 13, 2015 - 8:30 am

Rash of Inuit youth crime a sign of social neglect, says youth leader

“I think youth are crying out for help in the way that makes sense to them"

LISA GREGOIRE
National Inuit Youth Forum President Maatalii Okalik says if we don't give children and youth safe, comfortable places to offload their pain and desires, they are bound to act out, sometimes with negative consequences. (FILE PHOTO)
National Inuit Youth Forum President Maatalii Okalik says if we don't give children and youth safe, comfortable places to offload their pain and desires, they are bound to act out, sometimes with negative consequences. (FILE PHOTO)
Sherry Mulak-McNeil, Nunavut's new Representative for Children and Youth, said parents and adults need to support children when they make mistakes and part of that is teaching them to be accountable for their mistakes. (FILE PHOTO)
Sherry Mulak-McNeil, Nunavut's new Representative for Children and Youth, said parents and adults need to support children when they make mistakes and part of that is teaching them to be accountable for their mistakes. (FILE PHOTO)

While everyone points fingers at neglectful parents, overworked teachers, paltry recreation programs and absentee leadership as the cause of a recent spate of youth crime in the North, one young woman suggests that everyone who can should stop complaining and step up.

Maatalii Okalik, head of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s National Inuit Youth Council, said Oct. 8 that youth acting out is not new, nor is it isolated to any one community or jurisdiction.

Anti-social behaviour is an understandable reaction when youth feel neglected, powerless and voiceless, she said, because they don’t have the capacity to get attention any other way.

“I think youth are crying out for help in the way that makes sense to them, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Okalik.

“When a baby needs something, they cry and you try to figure out quickly what it is they need so you can alleviate their concerns and cater to them. With a lot of things happening across Inuit Nunangat with Inuit youth, they’re doing the same thing. They’re crying out for help.”

Okalik was reacting to a cluster of youth crime lately including arson in Iqaluit and Cape Dorset, mischief and property damage in Taloyoak, a gun incident in Iqaluit and a group of young people in Kuujjuaq who harassed and assaulted a nanny who was caring for toddlers at a local park.

That story out of Kuujjuaq generated more than 50 comments on the Nunatsiaq News website, many of which were deleted for hateful content and cruel generalizations about the community and its residents. One commenter called the young offenders — all under age 12 — Neanderthals.

Okalik said she heard a lot of concerns from youth at the recent ITK youth summit in Iqaluit that their voices are not heard and that their needs are not being met.

So how do people address these cries for help?

Okalik said every adult who comes into contact with a child — coaches, teachers, family members, religious leaders, family friends, community members — should take the time to engage children when they can and give them a safe place to be children.

Often when they feel safe and are having fun — playing sports, say, or hunting and sewing with elders — the pain which children and teenagers might be feeling can come out in a healthy way.

They might feel lost or neglected because their parents are struggling with addiction, Okalik said.They might be victims of abuse or bullying. They might feel ashamed of their culture. They might be estranged from their grandparents because they don’t speak Inuktitut.

But they have few opportunities to talk about those things, she said, so they act out, or worse — get depressed and turn to thoughts of suicide.

You only have to look at the alarming rate of Inuit suicide among youth see that northern societies are failing their children.

“It’s recent in the media but it’s been going on for a very long time. I just hope we can start to facilitate that conversation,” she said, by giving youth formal and informal opportunities to express their needs and desires.

Part of the problem, she said, is that many youth don’t understand the impact of Nunavut’s colonial history, especially the traumatic and ongoing results of residential schools abuse.

“There needs to be more awareness about that history, not only among Inuit families and communities but across Canada as well. Once people become more aware of those facts, they can raise strong families and stop negative cycles,” she said.

“I have a lot of hope for the future, I really do, but we have to talk about this.”

In that sense, youth need to be the focus, at all levels of government, she said. They need local arts programs, recreation and other healthy pastimes. They need attention from their parents and mentors.

Nunavut’s new Representative for Children and Youth, Sherry Mulak-McNeil was unavailable for an interview Oct. 9 but she issued a statement via email that echoed much of what Okalik said.

“Even as a new office, it’s very clear to us that youth in the territory face many issues. We’ve already heard directly from youth about some of their big concerns: suicide, lack of community resources and cultural programming, poverty. These are big issues for a child to deal with. We must not lose sight of that,” Mulak-McNeil said.

“We must also not lose sight of the fact that young people will make mistakes and as adults it is our responsibility to support them through those mistakes. That support includes teaching them about accountability. It also includes friends, family and community reaching out to youth who they think might need help.”

She added that her office has resources to help support youth in Nunavut and encouraged youth and their guardians to come into the office and inquire about what is available.

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