Open Letter to the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P., Prime Minister of Canada
© Carolyn Marie Souaid
Like you, I became a teacher. I felt that teachers played a vital role in the well-being and future of a society. Like you, I believed in the power of education and in the nobility of the profession. I believed I could make a difference in the lives of young people. These beliefs led me to a remote community on the Ungava coast of Northern Quebec in the early 1980s. I was 24. It was my first teaching job.
I still remember their names, all of them. I remember how, from the very first day, they studied me from their desks, their bright, eight-year-old faces filled with trust. Even though thirty years have passed, I can still picture them: Vicky and Susie and the two Aloupas. Jimmy, Mary, Elisapie. Charlie, Lucy. I still have some of their drawings.
I arrived on the heels of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the 1975 land claims settlement which helped establish the Cree School Board for the Cree and the Kativik School Board for the Inuit, and prioritized both mother tongue and second-language instruction as well as the professional training and employment of locals as teachers. It was a new beginning. Whites and Natives worked side by side to build a positive learning environment for their students. Hope was in the air. I remained in the north three years before coming back to Montreal.
Earlier this year, Lucy's 18-year-old son committed suicide. From an outsider's perspective, Lukasi Forrest had everything going for him. An actor, he starred in the 2014 Quebec film Uvanga, an exploration of mixed ancestry and identity in the north. I am told he was a good student.
The last time I saw Lucy she was eight years old. She was spunky and had an infectious laugh. How could I have known back then that one day she would become the mother of a child who would take his own life? I can't even imagine the depth of her sorrow.
Lukasi is only one of a growing number of Inuit kids who feel so disenfranchised, so helpless and redundant on this earth that they see no other solution but to end it for themselves. The crisis has reached epidemic proportions. According to the latest statistics, the suicide rate in his community is 25 times higher than the Quebec average.
It is difficult to admit, but I feel as though I bear some of the responsibility. I never met Lukasi, but I knew his mother. Every day, for a whole year, she sat wide-eyed in my classroom as I piqued her curiosity about art and science and poetry. I thought I was doing the right thing. Teaching her and her classmates that hard work and determination would open the door to a bright future, filled with possibility. I made them believe in the miracle of education. I made them believe that having the right tools and skill set would allow them to deal with the effects of western culture on their traditional lifestyle. (I never said it in so many words - how would a kid in grade three be able to process such a concept? - but that was the idea.)
The truth is, I let her down. Despite my good intentions, I tried to build something before the foundation was solid. I interfered with a culture that was (and still is) struggling to live between two worlds.
In just a few short generations, the Inuit have gone from being a nomadic people to a sedentary one. Their days, once spent hunting and fishing and sewing caribou skins are now blinking with Facebook and Instagram, TV and video games. I’m not advocating a return to the old ways. This would be unrealistic. But consider how strange it is, given how much time was once spent on the land, to look out the window on a winter afternoon in the north, and not see a single person outdoors.
I've been back to these communities on and off for the past decade, and despite the implementation of various well-meaning social programs designed to better the situation in the north, I do not see a great improvement. On the contrary. The problem of suicide and substance abuse has grown. I don't know what the solution is but I do know that what we've been doing isn't working. I hate to think how many more lives will be lost to alcohol and drugs and suicide if effective changes don’t come soon. Inuit youth need to feel positive about their future, they need to feel empowered. They need to know that their lives matter, that whatever path they choose in life, whether it takes a traditional or modern turn, they won't be left high and dry.
This is not just an Inuit problem; it's a Canadian one. And while our first instinct might be to send up another team of southern experts or convene a special think tank, we need to remember that the Inuit are resilient people. They've weathered and survived centuries of hardship. This is why I ask that you remember Lucy and her son Lukasi as you and your government sit down to draft policy designed to right some of the wrongs that have been inflicted on First Nations and indigenous peoples over the years.
What they need, above all, is time and a first-world support system as they develop the appropriate know-how and skills to help them power their lives, culture and economy. They have a lot of work ahead of them. They need to configure and put in place a social system that resembles them but also understands the reality of what it means to live in the 21st century. They need to design an infrastructure that addresses the immediate and future needs of their despairing youth. Above all, they need to work through it themselves, and sooner rather than later. Before one more kid decides that his life isn't worth living.
Carolyn Marie Souaid