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A group of kids ride their bike along a road in the village of Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Quality of life for northern Quebec's young people is improving, despite an alarming jump in cases reported to the youth protection department, health officials say.

Last year, one in three children in the 14 villages of the Nunavik region were reported to child services, according to the provincial youth protection department. In the rest of the province, five per cent of children under the age of 17 were reported to the department.

In the villages on Hudson Bay, officials said, the number of children reported to youth protection jumped 110 per cent over the past three years. In the villages on Ungava Bay, the number increased 57 per cent. Actual numbers of children were not available.

Half of the children cared for by social services were under five years old, officials said.

Sixteen per cent of the cases reported were related to cases of sexual abuse, compared with 7.6 per cent in the rest of Quebec, officials said.

Changes made

The increase in reported cases can be explained by an improvement in access to services, said Johanne Paquette, director of planning for the Nunavik Regional Health Agency.

Two years ago, Quebec’s Human Rights Commission released a damning report pointing to the failure of local health officials to address the distress of the population.

Since then, Paquette said, officials have followed through on a number of the commission’s recommendations, including opening a centralized reporting system, making it easier for people to report cases of abuse.

"We know that it’s complex when we’re talking about violence, the abuse, the sexual files," Paquette said.

Housing shortage

Still Paquette acknowledged there is much work to do. One of the major issues facing the region is a lack of housing, she said. An estimated 500 families need homes.

Sylvie Godin, the commissioner who drafted the report two years ago, agreed the increased number of reports is a good sign.

"All the people, all the families, all the members of a community that are made aware of a situation of neglect of any children has a duty to report — based on that Youth Protection Act," Godin said. "That is where, if there is an increase, this is a good thing."

Elaisa Papigatuk, a resident of Salluit, one of Quebec's northernmost communities, spent six years on a waiting list for a home for herself, her boyfriend and their young daughter. They shared a home with Papigatuk’s parents, two brothers and sister, before they finally got a place of their own on Friday.

Children are often trapped in abusive situations because there is no other place for them to go, Papigatuk said. Abusers often use the fact they have a home to force others to do what they want, she said.

"I know some people who are in that situation," Papigatuk said.

Officials are hoping the federal government will come up with additional funding to help improve access to housing in the region.