Wednesday 6 April 2011

When neolithic meets modern

Australia and Canada have similar problems in the hinterland. The Toronto Globe and Mail's Patrick White goes to Nunavut.
The police and local media talked of a town unravelling, of a place where social norms had collapsed. What no one said aloud was that the unhinged town was symptomatic of an unhinged territory. While Canadians were aware there were social problems in the North, the outbreak of mayhem in Cape Dorset last fall drew broad attention for the first time to their violent extremes – the toll Nunavut pays in cold blood.

The rate of violent crime per capita here is seven times what it is in the rest of Canada. The homicide rate is around 1,000 per cent of the Canadian average. And the number of crimes reported to the police have more than doubled in the dozen years since the territory was formed. If it were an independent country, Nunavut's crime statistics would place it in the realm of South Africa or Mexico.

Even more than Nunavummiut harming each other, they are hurting themselves: Inuit males aged 15 to 24 have a suicide rate 40 times that of their peers in the rest of Canada, and children are abused at a rate 10 times the national average, even as 50 per cent of social-worker positions stand vacant.

Beyond physical violence, on the 12th anniversary of its founding, Nunavut is struggling on all levels just to meet the basic needs of its 33,000 inhabitants. Seven in 10 preschoolers grow up in houses without adequate food. Within Confederation, Nunavut ranks last in virtually every measure – education, general health, substance abuse, employment, income and housing.
Solutions? How about more spending:
Nunavut, by contrast, posts a 20-per-cent unemployment rate and generates 7 per cent of its revenue internally. The rest – $1.1-billion or roughly $33,000 per capita – comes from Ottawa.
Tightening up on alcohol? There's already a thriving black market consequent to existing tight liquor controls. And consider Greenland's experience:
Mr. Peterson's alcohol task force is looking to the steps Greenland took in the mid-1990s to address rampant alcoholism there. It liberalized liquor sales, took addiction care more seriously and, in a symbolic gesture, banned drinking in government offices.

While the island still has its share of alcohol problems, per-capita liquor consumption has dropped significantly.

“I don't know a single sane Greenlander who would go back to the policies of the past where you drive people to obsess about alcohol,” said Jack Hicks, a social researcher who has worked closely with governments in both Nunavut and Greenland.

Mr. Hicks is one of the Arctic's foremost experts on suicide. “We have to get young people off of drinking cupfuls of vodka with no mix. If you acknowledge that people are going to drink instead of pretending you can stop them, you can do some good.”
Horror alcohol use is a symptom, not the disease:
“I once saw a little girl slugging back a bottle,” said Constable Alex Benoit, one of the Cape Dorset policemen involved in the Incidents. “When we stopped her and asked her what she was doing, she said she was trying to pass out. That was the goal. Not to have fun or enjoy herself. It was to black out. Alcohol is used differently here.”
When blacking out is the goal, there are close but more dangerous substitutes for alcohol.

Nobody has the answer for this kind of mess.
Throughout Nunavut, Inuit leaders appeal to tradition as a response to violence and despair. Outsiders are bewildered by the claim that to progress, society must regress. But in smaller, more remote places such as Repulse Bay, you can at least partly see their point.

Repulse Bay is an 800-person hamlet two flights northeast of Iqaluit. Located directly on the Arctic Circle, about 2,000 kilometres due north of Thunder Bay, it ranks near the basement of territorial socio-economic indicators. The median income is below $20,000; unemployment sits around 40 per cent. As of 2006, only five of the 175 young people here between 15 and 24 had a high-school diploma.

But, despite the lack of an economy, schooling and any real government presence, the Repulse Bay crime rate is far closer to the national average. RCMP records show just 156 Criminal Code violations last year and 150 in each of the previous two years, probably giving it the lowest crime rate in Nunavut.

“If you talk to people who visit a lot of remote communities across Nunavut, they'll tell you people in Repulse just seem happier than people elsewhere,” said a visiting physician, dining on dry meat loaf and cherry pie one evening at the local hotel. “It's hard to describe.”

Steve Mapsalak, a former MLA and renowned hunting guide who is now the town's Senior Administrative Officer, said his town may not be perfect, but its relative peace stems from a way of life grounded in fishing and hunting.

“We don't hunt as a hobby here,” Mr. Mapsalak said. “It's our way of life, our currency, our welfare system, our culture. We spread our meat to the old and the poor. A good hunter raises the entire community.”
To me, it sounds a lot less like tradition is what's solving things and a lot more like folks having purposeful lives. The people in Repulse have to work for a living - hunt, trap, fish. There's a reason to get up in the morning; in the evening, you know you've achieved something or that you've worked damned hard trying. You don't get that living on handouts in a government-provided house in a town with no options, no hope for the future, and no places to look for models of how to better arrange your life.

Policy solutions sure won't be easy though. Even things like government job creation programmes in Iqaluit could have perverse effects if they draw in folks from places like Resolute; there's some hints in the article that recent migration to Iqaluit was driven by the hopes of government jobs. Subsidising folks to move south to where there's work would eventually destroy Inuit culture and would fail absent lots of expensive support packages for folks moving south with skill sets radically unsuited for southern work environments.

It's a lot easier for government to destroy communities through forced resettlements than it is to fix the mess created.
In Cape Dorset, qallunaat [non-Inuit] first came in significant numbers around 1903, first bringing religion, then trading posts, then law enforcement and bureaucracy. The Hudson's Bay Company set up in 1913, soon drawing hundreds of Inuit into the fur trade. But in 1949, when prices plummeted for white-fox furs, the most coveted pelts, so did Inuit fortunes.

By the 1950s, RCMP officers at the sparse Cape Dorset settlement saw mass starvation setting in. People were eating dog food to stay alive. The Mounties radioed for a massive food airlift, and urged Inuit in far-flung seasonal camps to move to Cape Dorset, close to food and health care.

It was then, in the words of Mary Simon, president of the advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, that “the colonization process evolved to the point where our people expected things to be given to them.” Expectations grew and grew, on federal assurances that life would be better when this nomadic hunting people instead settled in one place.

While the shift increased Inuit life expectancy from 35 in the early 1940s to 66 in the late 1980s, the transitional period sapped all manner of Inuit self-reliance, replacing it with shoddy government homes, abusive residential schools and social-assistance cheques. Generations since have been raised to sentimentalize the past and expect little of the future, a recipe for the cultural disorientation and undirected anger that breed violence.
Read the whole article. If you've any feasible solutions, you ought to be up for some kind of Nobel.

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