Inuit Women's Health: A Call for Commitment

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Pauktuutit Inuit Women's Association of Canada

Pauktuutit has become internationally recognized and respected for its expertise in health promotion and prevention. At the root of our success is our commitment to ensuring Inuit ownership by using Inuit working groups and steering committees to guide and direct all our initiatives.

We seek meaningful involvement in the development of programs and policies affecting us. We need to regain control of our own health care, involved as true and active partners. Too often, our needs are incorporated into larger discussions about Aboriginal health. Most significantly, programs designed for First Nations are often implemented where Inuit-specific community-based initiatives are needed.

The imposition of non-Inuit health programming affects us in many ways. One is the loss of traditional midwifery as an integral part of our lives. Childbirth practices were inherent to our way of life and crucial to our social fabric. The bonds within family and community were reinforced and intensified much beyond the birth event, extending to a child’s education and place in the community.

Now most Inuit women give birth in hospitals far from their home. While they appreciate the benefits of modern medicine, and the presence of doctors and nurses in case of complications, there is increased demand for us to be allowed to choose to give birth in our own communities, in a manner consistent with our culture and traditional expertise. While there is renewed hope for a revival of midwifery and community-based childbirth in the North, it is threatened by the imposition of standards and accreditation processes that would almost certainly exclude Inuit women and ignore the value of traditional practices.

Capacity building is a long process that requires substantial and sustained support. It is not sufficient to provide opportunities for Inuit to gain the education required to meet standards set by Southern Canada when, to take advantage of such programs, we must leave our families and communities for extended periods of time. Programs must reflect the reality of Arctic life and be delivered in the North in order for Inuit to build capacity.

Many health care needs of Inuit women are not being met. Mammograms, an important diagnostic tool for breast cancer, are only available in the South. Waits longer than six months for an appointment are common. A test that requires Southern women a few hours away from their jobs or families can mean a week or more for an Inuk woman. If she is diagnosed with breast cancer, she has little or no choice but to remain in the South, unable to participate in family life while undergoing potentially life-saving treatment. The value of family support for women facing breast cancer is well documented, yet it is most often unavailable to us.

The lack of accessible information and low literacy levels mean that many Inuit woman do not have basic health care knowledge. We need educational material in our own language, Inuktitut, and in plain English.

There is clearly a need for community- based health initiatives to augment health system programs. Two of the most successful are the Pauktuutit’s tobacco cessation program and the Canadian Inuit HIV/AIDS Network. At the core of each is a commitment to heavily involve community members with respect for the expertise of Inuit in their delivery. Building sustainable capacity can only take place when the community is involved in the process.

Poverty, homelessness and the lack of information and services have a negative impact on women’s overall health. Family violence also remains a major physical and mental health issue. Many Inuit women and children experience it in their own homes. Policy and decision makers should consider an investment in violence prevention as an investment in reducing the escalating costs of health care in the North.

For many years, Pauktuutit participated in national health policy discussions and design of initiatives through its limited health consultation funding. Its funding was lost in October 1999. Immediately following, the federal government announced several major health initiatives intended to benefit First Nations and Inuit. Because the organization no longer has sufficient financial resources to be an effective advocate, Inuit women have been left out of federal consultations where decisions concerning health policy and program development on matters affecting them are made.

We strongly encourage the federal government to consult directly with Inuit women on health matters. As women, and as members of families and communities, we have great wisdom and expertise to share.

Governments must also provide financial and human resources for Inuit women to build their capacity to participate in health policy discussions and planning.

A version of this brief was presented to the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

Pauktuutit is a national non-profit association representing Inuit women throughout Canada. Its mandate is to foster needs awareness and encourage Inuit women’s participation in community, regional and national concerns in relation to social, cultural and economic development.

Pauktuutit has a number of publications listed on its web site Inuit Women’s Health: Overview and Policy Issues, for instance, is available for $10 plus postage. Contact Catherine Carry, Special Projects Coordinator,
Pauktuutit Inuit Women’s Association of Canada,
131 Bank Street, 3rd Floor, Ottawa ON K1P 5N7.
Tel.: 613) 238-3977  Fax: (613)238-1787