When the Inuit signed the James Bay Agreement in 1975, they were promised their own health board. It was supposed to be run by the Inuit, for the Inuit.
Twenty-five years later, a generation of Inuit who grew up with the Nunavik Health Board is growing alarmed about how it’s run. Their complaints parallel those of Crees who took the Cree Health Board to task at a special assembly on health and social services last year.
But the problems in Nunavik seem even worse. The Inuit communities are plagued by one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Many Inuit health workers actually look to the Cree Health Board as an inspiration and a model for how their own healthcare system could be managed.
One of the Nunavik Health Board’s critics is Siasi Smiler, the mayor of Inukjuak. She sat on the board of directors of the health board as the representative of the Kativik Regional Government for three years. Before that, she was her community’s representative on the board.
A year and a half ago, Smiler resigned in protest over how the health board is run. “That organization is just not connected to Nunavik at all. I feel so sad for that,” she said.
“It’s very, very far from Inuit people.”
Smiler said she tried to raise her concerns at health board meetings, but she was always ignored and dismissed. “There’s an unspoken way that is carried out by people who work there. It’s almost like manipulating people into doing something,” she said. “There is a sense of something not being right, but when you try to address it it’s turned around.”
In the last issue of The Nation, current and former Nunavik health workers said there is a chronic lack of trained Inuit professionals. Out of 50 to 60 nurses, only three are Inuit. This creates a language and cultural barrier between health workers and Inuit community members. The non-Inuit health professionals have a high turnover rate, which is disruptive to good health services, they said.
Eli Weetaluktuk, executive director of the Puvirnituq hospital, said the Nunavik health network doesn’t “seem to have the will to train Inuit people to become nurses and doctors.”
Lizzie York, a former executive director of the Nunavik Health Board, said non-Inuit staff often made racist comments about Inuit staff and clients.
Smiler, who is York’s sister, shares the concerns about the lack of Inuit staff: “A lot of positions at the health board are held by professionals hired from the south.
I thought it was very hard to get in touch with those people, even though they were in the same community. It was like speaking to people in Quebec City.”
Another big concern, like at the Cree Health Board, is lack of funds. “There is always underfunding, all the time,” said Smiler. But the problems go beyond that, she said: “It’s different here. You need a different approach. But that statement did not exist in the way they work.”