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There are a lot of changes occurring in Inuit society today. From climate change to housing shortages to language deterioration, one of the underlying issues right now has to do with education and employment. Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, believes that education must be addressed. She estimates that there is close to a 25 per cent high school graduation rate for Inuit students. This translates into lost workforce opportunities and even fewer post-secondary school graduates. "It really comes down to having that education and being able to take on jobs that are needed up here in the North," explains Simon. "Men face similar challenges, it is not just a women's issue. It's more like an Aboriginal issue."
However, for women in particular, barriers to education and jobs are connected to their roles as caregivers because there are no daycare centres in Inuit communities. Add to this an obvious wage gap and it is apparent why the situation is critical for Inuit women. A lot of this is a result of colonization. Simon recalls that Inuit society was traditionally non-hierarchical, and much different from how it is organized today. Traditionally, everyone had a role to play, even children, and responsibilities were shared between men and women. Elders were respected and responsible for sharing knowledge with the younger generation and oral history was strong. "It was a practice that was held very highly in the culture and it wasn't something that you could do or not do, it was incumbent upon you to learn from your elders," says Simon. With the imposition of the European governance structure, Simon notes that Inuit society is now more institutionalized and relies more on the written form.
It is also the shift into a cash economy that has severely disrupted traditional Inuit culture because it has created a need for jobs and a reliance on formal education. This has resulted in an increased burden on women who tend to work in the health field, in education and in social services. Simon explains that the gap in living conditions in Canada's North makes doing these jobs disproportionately stressful. "Anyone that has an education and is working in the community in the way of the services that we are supposed to provide to our people not only work very hard, but are under tremendous pressure to provide the right service when there's not enough resources to do it." This compounds the stress on women.
The housing crisis in the North has been getting attention in southern Canada lately. Simon asserts that poor living conditions are related to a variety of physical and social problems for the Inuit, including tuberculosis. Due to poor ventilation, mould and smoking indoors, respiratory illnesses are common. In addition, people's social well-being suffers as a result of overcrowding in homes. Education is also impacted as there is often not enough space for young people to concentrate and do their homework. "We don't have homelessness because people take people into their homes, so we have a hidden homelessness because there may be two or three families living together in one house and it has a big impact," says Simon. The situation is critical as there is a long waiting list for new homes. She estimates that in Nunavik alone, 1,000 houses are needed just to keep up with the problem.
The deterioration of language is also a concern in Canada's North and there is now a lot of discussion taking place regarding how to revitalize language in schools. Simon points out that it has been well documented that if a child learns in their mother tongue, they are more likely to complete school. "The threat of any language is not using it. If you want to preserve your language and revitalize it you have to be able to use it every day both in your home and in your school," explains Simon.
Recently, she has been involved with a national education initiative where a vision for Inuit education has been developed. The vision calls for a bilingual education system for Inuit children. It is a long term project that Simon says can be implemented most effectively in regions where language is still intact, such as in Nunavik, where Inuktitut is taught up to grade three. There is also work being done to standardize the writing system, but not to change the dialects. Simon hopes these changes can have a positive effect on education rates.
The effects of climate change are more visible in the North as opposed to southern cities in Canada. Simon contends that Northerners have been talking about these changes for a long time now, and they are still not getting enough attention. The weather is becoming more unpredictable and as a result, people's livelihoods are being affected. For example, she notes that "it was a very cold winter and we had a very late fall last year -- it was warm, close to 20 degrees Celsius in October -- which is unheard of."
Simon points out that a community in Nunavik sinking due to melting permafrost. This means that the buildings are starting to crack and the floors are sinking. Another western coastal community in the North is eroding due to storms and there is sea water in backyards. Both of these communities will have to be relocated, but that is a very costly endeavour. The Canadian government is being called upon for resources to help adapt to climate change. "The bottom line is that even though we live in a developed country, a rich country like Canada, our region, when it comes to climate change, is more like a developing country," declares Simon. She sees the effects of climate change that the North is experiencing as largely due to industrialization in the South.
When it comes to the contentious issue of resource extraction, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has developed a declaration on resource development. They are very concerned about development but know that government and industry will do it with or without Inuit consent. Therefore, they are looking to be partners to promote sustainability, provide revenue sharing and jobs for communities. Simon sees this as an ideal opportunity to invest in Inuit education. "We have to find other ways of getting people to invest into our region so that we can start to have more viable communities where people are getting the services they so deserve as Canadians. Inuit are full taxpayers, so there's no reason why we have to be relegated to substandard conditions. I don't think this type of thing would be acceptable in other parts of Canada."
At the Women's Worlds conference, Mary Simon will be discussing her personal journey to her current leadership position as well as challenges that women face in Inuit communities and the workforce. She will also be talking about some of the larger issues that Inuit people are facing today.
Noreen Mae Ritsema is an intern with rabble.ca and is the editor of the University of Manitoba Gradzette.
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