'Heartbreaking' number of Inuit children in care spurs village to build 'family house'
Four years ago, Kangiqsualujjuaq, population 900, had highest number of children in foster care in Nunavik
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.
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"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.
"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."
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."
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.
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.
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.