'Heartbreaking' number of Inuit children in care spurs village to build 'family house'

The Inuit community of Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec has broken new ground with its 'family house,' so children who need to be kept safe from their own parents don't have to leave their home village.

Four years ago, Kangiqsualujjuaq, population 900, had highest number of children in foster care in Nunavik

One of several playgrounds in Kangiqsualujjuaq, an Inuit village of 900. Four years ago, it had the highest number of children in foster care in Nunavik. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Mayor Hilda Snowball can't forget that day four years ago when she found out Kangiqsualujjuaq, population 900, had more children in foster care than any other community in Nunavik.

Twenty-seven babies, toddlers and older children had been taken from their parents under Quebec's Youth Protection Act.

Read more from Catou MacKinnon's recent trip to Nunavik:

"It was heartbreaking," Snowball told CBC. "As Inuit we share, we work together — and when something happens, we try to fix it as families." 

The 29-year-old mayor knew the solution had to come from within the community. 

Hilda Snowball, the mayor of Kangiqsualujjuaq, said it was an 'eye-opener' to find out her village had the highest number of children taken into foster care. (McCombie Annanack for CBC)

"The youth protection, being all white, trying to intervene with Inuit, there wasn't really any progress," said Snowball. 

Children had to be safe, but taking them away from their parents was doing more harm than good. 

Snowball and others in Kangiqsualujjuaq hatched a plan. 

Earlier this year, they inaugurated Qarmaapik Family House.

The name comes from the Inuktitut word for the large canvas tents Inuit used to set up in summertime, when they lived out on the land — before they were forced into permanent settlements.

Families working together

About 900 people live in Kangiqsualujjuaq. Almost half are children. People ride snowmobiles to get around, and colourful homes are nestled around a bay at the mouth of the George River. 

The new Qarmaapik Family House is at the bottom of the village.

Ella Annanack, who, at 24, is the home's co-ordinator, said some people in Kangiqsualujjuaq become parents at a young age and need to learn about "healthy parenting."

Ella Annanack, co-ordinator of the Qarmaapik Family House, wants Inuit families to solve their problems together, as their ancestors did. (McCombie Annanack for CBC)

So there are cooking classes twice a week.

There will be counselling available for parents in crisis.

Some of the parents, mostly mothers, are taking part in baby-book workshops, making scrapbooks to give to their children later in life. The books include genealogy, the origin of the baby's name and a description of the child's physical characteristics. 

Annanack says making the books gets parents thinking about their bond with their child — no matter the age.

She remembers one woman struggling with her teenager's behaviour.

"She wanted the same feeling, the feeling she had when the baby was born," said Annanack. "So it's really to connect with the kid again."

When parents come for cooking classes at night, a daycare worker supervises their children in this playroom.

Safe place to stay

While parents learn new skills at the front of the house, there are four bedrooms at the back. If children have to be taken out of a home because their parents are fighting, intoxicated or in crisis, they'll stay at Qarmaapik.

Daycare workers, counsellors, even Annanack herself will step in, so those children don't have to be taken out of the community and put into foster care.
The key movers and shakers behind Qarmaapik Family House are: (left to right) co-ordinator Ella Annanack, Kangiqsualujjuaq Mayor Hilda Snowball and Qarmaapik board president, Alice Anatunak.

Snowball said the community wanted to prevent the youth protection system from kicking in. At the same time, the parents in crisis will get the help they need, to make sure they can properly respond to their children's needs.

Snowball said she has seen the devastating impact of separation on children in foster care. When children are flown back to the community to visit with their parents, the families are reunited at Qarmaapik.

"They miss each other," Snowball said. "They miss their presence, they miss their affection."

"Children are happy when they finally see their families, and [when] the time comes time to leave, it's heartbreaking to see them."

"The children are crying, wanting to stay with their parents," Snowball says. "But they are forced to leave, because they are in the foster care system." 

New vocation for building

Through the community's effort, and with $183,000 from the Nunavik Board of Health and Social Services, a building which once housed a store, then a restaurant and, at one point, a bed-and-breakfast was renovated to become Qarmaapik House.

There is a reinforced steel door between the front section and the back, where the bedrooms are located. There will be five security guards, once the house goes into full operation.

The municipality's lawyer is working with the director of youth protection to find out how children can stay in the community while still respecting Quebec's Youth Protection Act.

Staff, volunteers and village officials at the inauguration of Qarmaapik Family House in March. (Northern village of Kangiqsualujjuaq)

2010 statistics

According to a 2010 report, itself a follow-up to an in-depth investigation by Quebec's Youth and Human Rights Commission, "30 per cent of children in Nunavik [were] the subject of a report to the director of Youth Protection."

Half of them were under the age of five.

A total of 189 children were in foster care, either in homes in Nunavik or in southern Quebec.

CBC made several requests to the Nunavik Board of Health and Social Services for the latest statistics about youth protection interventions and the number of children in foster care, however, the board refused to provide that data.

About 400 of the 900 people who live in the northern Quebec village of Kangiqsualujjuaq are children. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)


Catou MacKinnon started working for CBC in New Brunswick as a reporter and then as the Maritime Noon correspondent. Since 2004, she's been reporting on stories from all over the province of Quebec.