Nunavik children's welfare to top Kuujjuaq conference agenda

The well-being of Inuit children in Nunavik is expected to be among the top issues at a major conference starting Thursday in Kuujjuaq, Que.

The well-being of Inuit children in Nunavik is expected to be among the top issues at a major conference starting Thursday in Kuujjuaq, Que.

Leaders in northern Quebec's mainly Inuit region — which recently negotiated plans for self-government — will discuss a variety of social issues with Quebec Premier Jean Charest, federal Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl and other provincial politicians in the two-day event.

Officials with Makivik Corp., which oversees Inuit institutions in Nunavik, say they will discuss ways of ensuring children are protected from physical and sexual abuse as well as unhealthy living conditions in the region.

"We need help from the government, but at the same time, we need help from the parents themselves," Makivik president Pita Aatami said Wednesday.

"It can't just be the leaders finding solutions. It's going to have to be community-based solutions."

Quebec ADQ Leader Mario Dumont, who has travelled to Nunavik for the first time for the conference, said social problems in the region must be addressed.

"We have to make sure that the standards and the quality of life that we have in the south, that we can reproduce it as much as we can, respecting the cultural differences," Dumont said.

In June, a report by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that more than half of Nunavik's children live in homes with an alcoholic or drug addict, and are exposed to domestic violence at rates 10 times higher than the average Canadian population.

In some cases, the commission found, family dysfunction is exacerbated by overcrowding, substance abuse and physical and sexual abuse. As a result, many youth turn to drugs and alcohol, the report stated.

Children fear their own homes

Kuujjuaq mechanic Brian York told CBC News that some children in his community stay outside all night because they are afraid to go home.

"There is a lot of problems with kids around here, with their parents always drinking all the time," said York, 21. "I see a lot of kids out at night."

Aatami said he doesn't see children as young as six years old staying out late at night in the streets of Montreal, but said it's prevalent in both Nunavik and Nunavut. He said Inuit need to realize that times have changed — due in large part to the presence of drugs and alcohol — and it's no longer safe to let their children stay out at night unsupervised.

"I can do so much as a leader, but it's the parents that have to take responsibility," Aatami said. "Also, the community has to take responsibility. They can't just let their children run around."

Earlier this month, the Inuit in Nunavik worked outan agreement in principlefor self-government, following 30 years of talks with Quebec and Ottawa. The agreement is expected to be in place by 2009.

Dumont said the fine print on the proposed Nunavik agreement still has to be discussed, then go before Quebec's national assembly.