Nunavut at 20: Youth creating their own spaces to heal

Touchdown in Pangnirtung, Nunavut – a small hamlet 300 kilometres northeast of the territory’s capital of Iqaluit.

It’s a Wednesday night and -45 outside.

I find my accommodations, stow my bags and head out for a walk to see if the aurora is out.

“Did you want a ride, there’s a drunk driver out there,” a man in a pick-up stops and asks.

“I should be good but thank you for sharing that,” I reply.

A few hundred metres up the road I’m approached by three frantic girls no older than 11-years old.

“Are you the new nurse?” they ask.

Before I can answer, the girls tell me that their three friends have just been hit by a snowmobile and were on their way to the nursing station.

I walk over to the health center and immediately see a commotion.

Families coming and going in a state of dismay.

I decide to follow up the next morning.

On my way back to my room, I witness another strange occurrence.

Down from the Canada Parks office, and off in the distance nestled in the Baffin Mountains, a headlight from a sled flicks erratically – jerking back and forth.

A minute later, a convoy appeared and the snowmobiler was guided back down the mountain.

Back at the hotel, days later I would hear that the snowmobiler on that mountain was the drunk driver involved in a hit and run.

Pangnirtung has a population of 1,400.

It has no roads in or out of town – but everyone and everything about the community is connected.

This hit and run was no different.

Not many words are spoken – the majority of this church service is in Inuktitut and sung.

Every now and then, the number of musicians on stage would swell to a dozen.

Young musicians playing instruments and clutching microphones.

A few hours into the service the room falls quiet.

The congregation forms a circle for an 11-year-old girl who was medevaced out of Pang as it’s commonly called, with a fractured skull and broken leg.

She was hit by the drunk driver earlier that week.

A victim of alcohol in a dry community.

It is a tough and familiar scene for Mary Etuangat, leader of the Pentecostal church.

In a place that does not receive direct sunlight for four months of the year, Etuangat remembers a simpler time during her childhood where kids would run up the mountains to catch some sunshine during the winter hours.

“We want them [youth] to be whole, healed and to be doing what they enjoy doing, whatever they want to do in the future, we want them as a whole human being,” she says.

“To take pride in who they are and have spiritual growth.”

She opens up the church for youth who use the space most nights of the week.

“She [the 11-year-old hit by a drunk driver] comes here to the church too, so it is right for us to pray for her. Because she is part of us, part of the community, part of the church,” she says.

Safe spaces are not always easy to find for youth in smaller communities across Nunavut.

Since the Pang youth center closed in 2015, the church has become a haven for kids who would otherwise wander around.

Teens come in from the cold, church hopping from the Anglican Church down the road.

They charge their phones and hang out by the wall mingling with friends until they are told to take a seat and participate in prayers.

In the dark months of winter, Solomon Kooneeloosie goes there for community.

He’s been playing music with his friends here for two years.

“I go to church anytime I want to. We come here Wednesday, Friday and Sundays. It is always fun,” Kooneeloosie says.

“Whenever I am down I just go here and sing, that’s when I feel better.”

Through church services, Etuangat has helped youth for over a decade.

“There is a lot of healing. They express themselves, they want prayer and they speak to us even if it not at the church but outside, or here,” says Etuangat. “It is very touching the background each of us have come from.

“Whether it be, we have lost family members and friends to suicide and from different homes, and we want that load lifted off of them.”

Over in Iqaluit, David Korgak also supports children and youth through his work.

He works as a child and youth advocacy specialist with Nutaqqanut Inulramirnullu.

It is the first organization in the territory dedicated to holding service providers accountable when they are not servicing children and youth as best as they can.

“For example if a person in care wants more family visits with their parents and the social worker never took the time to listen to this young person, so we hold them accountable by ensuring that this young person has this opportunity to have their voice heard and listened to,” he says.

Like Etuangat, Korgak recognizes how youth have a right to be safe and have a place to express their opinions.

“Young people feel very often that they aren’t being heard. That is one thing that does come across, and come to me a lot when I am in the communities,” he says.

“Young people do not feel like they are being heard by adults in their life.”

Korgak travels to small communities like Pang and understands the challenges that service providers face with a lack of resources, capacity and infrastructure.

In our conversation he is hopeful that communities will be able to help themselves.

“One Inuit societal value is being resourceful and another is being innovative,” he says. “Communities do have some resources available to them so when we encourage young people and service providers to seek those resources and if they don’t have them, be innovative, create something and work with community partners.”

When filling job vacancies, Korgak said he would like to see youth training for Government of Nunavut workers.

“Mental health workers that come into the territory, very often they are generalists, they work mainly with adults. No one has any specifically with dealing with young children and youth and they very often are not comfortable with working with young people,” he says.

“That is a huge gap of service in the territory.”

As Nunavut celebrates its 20th anniversary, there are painful challenges, but also a lot of healing and it’s by community members who are caring for the next generation to make Inuit stronger than ever.

“It was so touching to have them, they were so hungry for hope – and they were praying and crying.

“And then they were moved,” Etuangat says.

The Pang Pentecostal Church doesn’t have the same atmosphere as the old youth center and it may not be for everyone, but in times of hardships and times of celebration these spaces and these communities become vital for youth looking to heal.

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