Iqaluit boys sleeping on street raise alarms

A picture of two boys sleeping outdoors near an Iqaluit grocery store has prompted calls for more services to help vulnerable children.

A picture of two boys sleeping outdoors near an Iqaluit grocery store has prompted calls for more services to help vulnerable children.

The photo, submitted to a local newspaper by resident Evie Eegeesiak, shows two young boys curled up along an outside wall of the NorthMart store around 6:30 a.m. on July 26.

The boys, one wearing shorts, were trying to stay warm as they slept on the pavement surrounded by cigarette butts and litter.

"It's just now very 'in our face,' in the sense that they chose to sleep in front of NorthMart," said Inuk law graduate and social activist Madeleine Redfern, who applauded Eegeesiak for making the photo public.

"I think often children are not choosing to go home for whatever reason at night, and often sleep here on the beach, in the shacks, in porchways, in any sort of area that they can find a place to lie down their head for the night."

Iqaluit RCMP said Nunavut's Health and Social Services Department is now involved with the boys' case.

Police criticized for slow response

The RCMP was criticized for not dealing with the matter earlier that night. Police confirmed that officers were involved in another matter when Eegeesiak's daughter called them about the boys sleeping outdoors.

By the time police responded, one of the boys had left, and the officers took the other child home.

Staff Sgt. Leigh Tomfohr said police would have reacted to the situation more quickly if they had more officers. The Iqaluit detachment currently has 16 front-line officers, not enough to staff it round the clock.

Between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. daily, officers are on call, but not actually on duty, Tomfohr said.

"Our position is that we would love to have 24-hour policing in Iqaluit so that we have members out on the street all the time," he said. "But until such time as we can get those added resources, we have to deal with what we have and that's how we deal with it."

Tomfohr said the detachment needs another six officers on the payroll. A request has been submitted for funding, he added.

Advocate, shelter needed

The photos of the sleeping boys also renewed calls for a children's advocate to be established in Nunavut, as well as a safe shelter where young people can spend the night.

"It would aid the community," Tomfohr said of a youth shelter.

"A lot of these young kids that are out there, if they're having a problem, if they don't want to stay at home, they would have a place that they could go to."

Redfern said she supports Justice Minister Keith Peterson's efforts to establish a children's advocate's position. Premier Eva Aariak has also expressed her support for the idea.

Both Tomfohr and Redfern are calling on the public to keep a watchful eye on their children, and call authorities if something is wrong.

"We know that we do have families that are struggling, that are living in poverty. There are issues of substance use and substance abuse, of violence, domestic violence, child abuse even," Redfern said.

"I think it's a good thing that it's being brought to our attention, because then ... we actually have to face it and try to help the most vulnerable members of our society."