Inuit on the road to educating own

Inuit on the road to educating own

My last trip to the Canadian Arctic was for a dual purpose, to meet the immediate health care needs of the Inuit, and to explore the start of a pilot project to lay the foundations of a healthier and more prosperous future for the very young.

Like most physicians, I have always been acutely aware that social circumstances and lifestyle have a lot to do with one’s health status.

In the past eight years that I have worked in the Canadian Arctic, off and on, it has become even more clear that all the health care resources in the world are not going to be very effective unless we deal with issues of the lack of education, widespread alcohol and drug abuse, lack of mental health care, lack of adequate housing, and lack of food.

Less than 100 years ago, the Inuit were largely self-sufficient, dependent on what the land and the sea provided, supplemented with what the occasional contact with whalers and the Hudson Bay Company fur traders brought with them.

Some of the contacts with the early European and Canadian traders were beneficial, but much was and still is detrimental to the health of the Inuit population. Tuberculosis was unknown until the European whalers infected the Inuit with disastrous effects that linger to today with 19 times the national average. Smallpox, measles and poliomyelitis decimated the population. The introduction of tobacco has resulted in the highest rate of lung cancer in our country and the mortality from tobacco use is rising in Nunavut in contrast to the rest of Canada, where it is dropping. The suicide rate is 10 times the national average and alcohol abuse is all too common.

The residential school program, instituted by the federal government in the late 1800s and run by various religious organizations until the last school was closed in 1996, was a deliberate and premeditated destruction of anything aboriginal. That experience of some 80,000 aboriginal people has left many not only with a negative attitude towards education, but also induced alcoholism and violence as a lifestyle.

All these facts take on a very different perspective when one actually is confronted with these realities as a physician trying to limit the damage of what our western culture has inflicted upon the Inuit spirit and outlook on life. This year there will be no graduates from high school in the community where I worked. The day I visited the school, only two of 20 Grade 10 students attended classes. Lack of education will condemn most people anywhere  to a life on the lower margins of society, unable to getting a well-paying job, unable to raise a family with good parenting skills and, thereby, creating a vicious cycle of dependency for their offspring, as well, and this is especially true for the Inuit. Even the very few who attend school through Grade 12 are often barely able to read and write, since they are promoted to the next grade regardless of their academic performance.

Where does one start to turn this around? Government alone is unable to do that even though, on paper, there are many worthwhile goals and initiatives.

I had the opportunity to consult with the leadership of the settlement where I worked and these people endorsed a number of initiatives. One is ready to be implemented.

There will be about 40 newborn children in that community this year. Our local Rotarians, with the assistance of some generous individuals, are prepared to fund a unique early childhood literacy program, in which every child will receive a book every month in the mail until age five. The books are of high quality, age appropriate and from the experience in other communities, we expect the children to develop a love for books and reading by the time they are ready to attend school.

It was Dolly Parton who conceived of this idea and initially funded the books for the children in the community where she was raised by parents who were illiterate.

Currently, there are thousands of underprivileged children in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. who receive these books, and it is my hope that this may just be the beginning of a new era of self-sufficiency for the Inuit being on the road to being educated on their own terms.

Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.