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Inuit counsellors tackle Nunavut's biggest issues

Graduates of a counsellors training program in Clyde River have been helping local Inuit deal with trauma and emotional issues for nearly a decade. Now, some are wondering if this unique program could help Nunavut tackle the problem of suicide.

Ilisaqsivik Society's 'Our Life's Journey' program trains counsellors in Clyde River

Aisa and Regilee Piungituq are both counsellors at the Ilisaqsivik Society. The husband and wife usually counsel people separately, but they also offer couples counselling. (Elyse Skura/CBC News)

For nearly a decade, the Ilisaqsivik Society's 'Our Life's Journey' program has been combining traditional Inuit knowledge with southern techniques to create a counsellors training program that's unique among Nunavut communities.

But some hope it won't be unique for long.

"Since [Ilisaqsivik] has opened, it has helped lots of people," Ooleepeeka Audlakiak-Panipak said in Inuktitut. 

The 'Our Life's Journey' graduate began work as a counsellor this month. She says she hopes to provide youth with the emotional support she always wanted. 
Ooleepeeka Audlakiak-Panipaq greets a visitor to Clyde River's Ilisaqsivik Society. (Vincent Robinet/CBC)

"Earlier in my teen years, it felt like I had nobody to turn to," Audlakiak-Panipak said. "I would like to help anyone in general, but I'm focusing on the youth, because when you are young you don't know where to turn."

This fall, a coroner's inquest into the high rate of suicides in Nunavut heard about the Clyde River program.

When the inquest wrapped, the jury issued a long list of recommendations, including that the territorial government "pilot Clyde River's Illisaqsivik [sic] model in other communities."

'We have to help ourselves first'

In one corner of the crowded Ilisaqsivik building, Aisa and Regilee Piungituq share an office. The husband and wife team counsel elders, couples and anyone who needs it — but people have to ask first.

"I can't support the people who think about taking their own lives, but don't say it," Regilee Piungituq said in Inuktitut. "The people who do talk about it, I can help them."

That's why the counsellors try to make the centre a welcoming place, with colourful posters, art and positive messages. 
The walls of the Ilisaqsivik centre are filled with colourful drawings and signs, designed to make people feel welcome. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

The training program, which is delivered in four modules over two years, doesn't just teach people how to help others, the instructor says, it also helps future counsellors learn how to handle their own feelings. 

"We have to help ourselves first, before we can help others."

For Aisa Piungituq, the program helped him shed the typically hardened emotional state held by many Inuit men. He says by "becoming softer," he's become more attuned to his own emotional needs and the needs of others. 

"When you don't talk it out," he said in Inuktitut, "you feel alone and ashamed, like you're the only person who feels that way." 

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Each day, Aisa Piungituq says he tries to provide a safe place for fellow Inuit who deal with issues that are all too common in Nunavut, including overcrowded housing, the lasting effects of residential schools and unhealthy relationships. 

"You can see them struggling and not talking about what bothers them," he said. "It builds up and becomes toxic to the point where some may get violent.

"But you can see a difference once they open up and share what's on their mind." 
'We use our culture. We use our mother tongue,' said Elijah Kautuq in Inuktitut. 'It's a lot better to do these workshops that way.' (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Another recent graduate, Elijah Kautuq, says the program is not only important to people in Clyde River. Each year, people from communities across the territory fly to the Baffin Island community to attend the program — and when tragedy strikes, the Clyde River counsellors head to the communities. 

For example, Kautuq says he visited Pond Inlet this summer after a tent fire claimed the lives of a man and three small children. Counsellors spoke with the children's classmates, the father's coworkers and the search and rescue team that responded to the accident.

"I wish there were more programs like this, in every community," said Kautuq.

"This is based on Inuit culture. We use our culture. We use our mother tongue. It's a lot better that way."

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