Virtual qaggiq draws on tradition to protect Inuit youth | Polarjournal
A virtual solution to temporary problems (Graphic: University of York)

With a median age of less than 27, Nunavut is far and away the youngest of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories. Of its 37,000 residents, more than a third are under 18. As in any district with a youthful profile, the adults are left wondering what their future might look like. In Nunavut, though, the concern runs deeper: mental health in particular has become a major concern among young Nunavummiut. In November, more than a hundred young people demanding that more attention be paid to their situation blocked the main intersection in Iqaluit, the territorial capital, warning adult decision makers that “the kids aren’t alright”.

One of the things they were dissatisfied with was a lack of adults in Inuit communities they could speak with about their problems when they felt unable to speak to a peer or calling the hotlines that exist. Partly as a result of their protests, addressing the shortfall of mental-health services has become a priority of the territorial legislature, but it also has the attention of academics and federal authorities, who last month announced that they were setting aside C$1.8 million (€1.32 million) for a community project that aims to create virtual mental-health resources that will give young people in Nunavut’s remote communities the sort of help they say they are looking for.

A community-directed project with an intimidating name, the Inuit Youth Develop a Virtual Qaqqiq: Using Technology and Cultural Knowledge to Support Resilience Outside the (Digital) Box aims to help young Nunavummiut as they grapple with what the project describes as the fallout from colonialism, disproportionate mental-health challenges and some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Kelly Fraser, a prominent Nunavut singer / songwriter who committed suicide in 2019 at the age of 26, suffered from mental-health problems (Photo: Facebook)

The territory’s young people themselves, together with their elders, will come up with ideas for mental-health-promoting digital activities the likes of video games and virtual reality programs that fuse Inuit tradition with psychology and other mental-health sciences. Their ideas will be delivered in a virtual qaggiq, a large igloo that has traditionally served as a meeting place for Inuit communities.

“Led by the communities, we will develop and assess a wellness program that acknowledges the colonial roots of youth’s existing struggles, while promoting novel resilience-building strategies that are grounded in science,” says Yvonne Bohr, a University of York professor who will be responsible for the project.

The goal of the project, she explained, is to bring down suicide rates among young people by strengthening cultural identity and reducing anxiety, boredom, depression and hopelessness. Their qaggiq may be virtual, but the problems that will be discussed there are all too real.

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