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Q & As with Caroline Anawak

Christine Kay
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Aug 12/02) - Caroline Anawak inspires people to stand up for themselves and to be the best person they can be.

Beyond the hectic schedule of her own family, she has educated people across the North on the growing problem of suicide. And she has helped people take steps to stop it.

NNSL Photo
Caroline Anawak

News/North: How long have you been in the North?

Caroline Anawak: I've spent 32 years in the North so the issues of the North are my issues, too. You just can't live in the North without doing something about what you see.

N/N: Where are you from?

CA: I was born in Toronto. When I graduated from high school, I had an offer to work for Disney and my family worked for IBM, but I didn't want to be the daughter or the niece of so and so.

I took a $35 a month job volunteering for the Company of Young Canadians, which was a Canada's domestic peace corps. They trained us in community development and organizing techniques.

N/N: How did you come North?

CA: In 1969, I came North to work as an adult educator in Rae-Edzo near Yellowknife. I lived there and married there. He was Dogrib. We separated and divorced after seven years. I came east where I met Jack (Anawak) in 1975. We were married and lived in Repulse Bay for seven years. Jack is now a (cabinet) minister in the Nunavut government. I had never lived in Iqaluit until 1999.

N/N: What did you do when you first got here?

CA: I worked as a mental health consultant for the Department of Health and Social Services.

N/N: What was the best part of that job?

CA: I got to go to 15 communities for four or five days each. It was amazing. I tried to return responsibility for wellness to the individual.

I was so tough on them. I'd say "I'm not letting you out of stopping death around here." And they'd ask why no one else talked to them like that. I pushed them and told them that they were the future.

I would say "Nunavut is in trouble and you're going to have to pull it out of the water." These kids, every last one of them, sat there and made a commitment to do this.

N/N: And has this commitment lasted?

CA: In almost every case they did something after. They had walks, they had plays. They started youth groups. My heart broke every time there was a suicide within those three years. But I see people talking about it now. They wouldn't even mention the "S" word (suicide). I believe the message is learn, believe and mobilize.

N/N: Why did you leave the job?

CA: The president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated approached me and said she would be honoured if I'd be her executive assistant. It was a long and hard decision, but I decided to leave health and social services.

N/N: Will your work in preventing suicide be continued?

CA: There is a mental health strategy that I had a part in that is in place. We'll see more people trained in suicide prevention, intervention and post-vention. The Department of Health and Social Services hasn't filled my position as of yet.

N/N: What do you think is at the heart of the suicide problem in the North?

CA: I really believe that grief and trauma at are the heart of it. That's very much why so many people are wired on cigarettes, booze and drugs. They're trying to escape the memories instead of facing them.

If we could just get people centred on the need to face them, to say this is the way I felt, this is what happened to me. If we could do this, we could do so much good around here. People don't believe life could be any different or any better. They don't believe that it's do-able.

N/N: You have done some cross-cultural training. What's the most important thing you teach there?

CA: This is what I teach them. I tell them here is your mantra -- there I go thinking like me again. I tell them don't make the mistake of assuming or judging and you'll do just fine. I made every mistake possible when I first came North.

I knew there had to be a way to stop others from doing the same thing.

N/N: What's the most important thing you have done in the North?

CA: I guess the most important moment for me in Nunavut was in 1988. I had to create a vision statement for all of what would become Nunavut. Elders, bureaucrats and people who just came by to sit in were there. I took a four-by-six index card.

I passed it around the room and asked what it felt like to work with the government of that time. At the end of it, the index card was just heavy. It's what they said that was so compelling. The phrases or words said things like "invisible," like "a bird in a cage," "trapped" and "never listened to."

N/N: What did you do with it?

CA: I took the card and asked do you want this as a vision statement or do you want something more? They wanted something more. That's what led to the 11-sentence vision statement. No other government has anything like it. As the facilitator, it was a privilege.

N/N: Tell me about your family?

CA: I have 17 children that call me mom. No one looks like anyone else and it causes you to celebrate individualism. We've just moulded ourselves into a family. We've got a city going on in our house with different religions and different races.

Our family is a microcosm of what's going on in the communities. We don't live outside of it, we are a result of it. I've always been involved. I was supporting three foster kids when I was 14 years old.

N/N: What are some of the biggest issues in the North?

CA: It's not a level playing field for women up here. There are less women than men here and we should be taking better care of these women. They should be living long and happy lives, but that's not the case in the North.

It's a very violent territory and we have to stop pretending it's not. These girls are being educated and then they get into a relationship where their own autonomy is questioned.

They are getting two very different messages. Many men think that they can own, possess and direct their partners and it's devastating to think that people still think like that in 2002. I always tell my sons, "I want you to be the man of the future" but not enough of us are saying that to our boys.

N/N: Will you be talking about things like this at the conference you are going to in Finland?

CA: The conference is called Taking Wing -- Gender Equity and Women in the Arctic. I am part of the Canadian delegation.

The presidents of NTI, (Inuit Circumpolar Conference) and Pauktuutit Inuit Women's Association are also going. They are all women and they are heading up major organizations.

We are going to be looking at how women are doing in the circumpolar world in terms of knowledge attainment, work, economic pressure and housing.

N/N: What do you do when you aren't fighting suicide or women's rights and taking care of your family?

CA: As a person I love reading. I've written a slim volume of poetry. I love singing. I love reading research and I take all that information with me.

I'm always hungry for information. I figure I'm going to bring it back to the North and put it out there. If I can put it out there, then I've done something.