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Nunavut suicide inquest: Education system 'failing' in mandate

Representatives of education, social services, corrections and the Nunavut Housing Corporation say that in order for the territory to address the risk factors for suicide, the territory needs to improve living conditions and education rates.

Education department realigning programs to address poor graduation rates, says Charlotte Borg

Students board a school bus at Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit. Poor school attendance and low graduation rates are among the systemic issues that Nunavut needs to address, say witnesses at a coroner's inquest into the territory's high rate of suicide. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

Overcrowded housing and poor school attendance are among the systemic issues that Nunavut needs to address, testified several government witnesses Monday at a coroner's inquest into the territory's high rate of suicide.

"Our truancy rates are high. Our lack of attendance rates are high. We know that," said Charlotte Borg, Nunavut's manager of student support services.

When asked if suicide prevention programs are being implemented in Nunavut's schools, Borg testified that the territory is trying to address the factors that contribute to Nunavut's high rate of suicide and instituting mental health programming aimed at "developing the protective factors in our children." 

"We recognize that we're not being successful." 

Borg said this is a good time to address any issues, because the education department is in a "process of realignment." 

In 2013, the Auditor General of Canada released a report outlining a number of ways the territory's education system is falling behind, noting that only 25 per cent of children who begin studying in Nunavut's school system graduate from high school.

"If our mandate as a department is to graduate 100 per cent of our students and 75 per cent aren't graduating, we recognize we are failing," testified Borg. 

High turnover rate a recurring issue

Borg, along with all of the other witnesses who testified Monday, pointed to the high turnover rate among staff in Nunavut as a significant barrier to implementing suicide prevention programming. 

"People from the South come with open and generous hearts [but] it's just so hard to overcome... the constant state of turnover," said Borg.

The two-week inquest is being held at the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit.

For the entire territory, Borg said there are only 3.5 guidance counsellors. Teachers in many small communities have to fill that role on top of their regular duties and struggle to divide their time between providing academic and emotional support for students at different levels of achievement. 

Those representing other government departments echoed that sentiment, adding that it's important to provide adequate support staff. 

"We do the best we can," testified Joanne Henderson, director of Children and Family Services, who said that social workers in communities often work alone and with as many as 20 clients at one time.

"We find creative ways of dealing with families." 

Henderson said her staff encounter widespread issues such as overcrowded housing and child abuse regularly and that the government needs to fund more positions. 

"If we want to do any real work, we need to have more workers."

'Sense of hopelessness'

Lori Kimball, the president and CEO of the Nunavut Housing Corporation, produced a number of statistics illustrating housing issues that plague the territory. 

In Nunavut, 52 per cent of people live in social housing. 

There are 3,000 people on the waitlist — many of whom share overcrowded accommodations.

"The number one way we see housing contributing to suicide is the overcrowding situation and the huge wait list for housing in the territory and the sense of hopelessness that comes along with that."

Kimball produced a specific dollar amount that she says will deal with the social housing backlog

If the Nunavut Housing Authority were to receive $1 billion in federal funding, Kimball said it could build 250 units a year and solve the issue in 20 years.

Suicide meetings 'tense,' 'difficult'

Last week, the suicide inquest revealed that Nunavut's suicide prevention strategy is failing to meet its goals and made 42 recommendations.

Borg said those recommendations are "not problematic" for the department, but implementing them could, perhaps, prove "challenging." 

Throughout the inquest, the partners of the strategy have discussed the different views on how collaboration among the Government of Nunavut, the RCMP, the Embrace Life Council and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. should work. 

NTI's Natan Obed and researcher Jack Hicks both said they felt the government was bogging down the process with its complex approval processes, but bureaucrats with the Department of Health have testified that expecting one person to speak on behalf of the entire territorial government is naive. 

Like all of the government employees who have testified so far, Borg wasn't at the table when the suicide prevention strategy was drafted. 

"There was a difficult dynamic," said Borg about her first "confusing" experiences attending meetings of the implementation committee. "As a representative of educators, I could not say yes or no.

"I couldn't figure out why the meetings were so tense."

Despite the drama between partners, Borg said the commitment of each partner toward preventing future suicides was never in doubt.

"There was a sense of urgency," she said. "It's a committee about life and death, after all." 

Collaborate, don't point fingers

Sheila Levy, executive director with the Kamatsiaqtut helpline, testified that her organization was not properly consulted on the writing of the suicide prevention plan.

"We're mentioned it in a lot, but in terms of coming to us and talking to us about what we need and what we should be doing and how we can do what they see is necessary — that hasn't been done." 

Levy said she was personally there for "part of the writing of it," but only from the Embrace Life point of view. 

"Our experiences are relevant," she testified, but she also argued that the most important thing now is to focus on the future. 

"I think we really need to collaborate on suicide prevention, not point fingers, not lay blame."

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