By Stephen Hendrie
The dictionary defines coping as, “to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner.” Since the coronavirus pandemic descended on the Nunavik region in March 2020, immediate action was taken by Nunavik organizations to protect the region from the virus, and the population to cope with the public health crisis. This story is about coping.
In a previous article in Taqralik, the Internet became the glue that assisted coping to take place. It helped share vital information about what the coronavirus is, how to take basic measures every day to protect yourself from it, and safely “self-isolate.”
As a health crisis, the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS), based in Kuujjuaq, developed online resources in Inuktitut, English, and French to help Nunavik cope. Executive Director Minnie Grey praised her team for their professionalism. “Even before the pandemic was officially announced, internally we really got organized. We put in our civil security cell, as per our mandate.”
Online, the NRBHSS website covered everything about COVID-19 applicable to the Nunavik region. An area of the site critical to coping was called “Psychosocial Resources.” A very thoughtful six-page PDF document called “Psychosocial Support – COVID-19” was developed. It had many sections, with help for youth, women, men, income support, food assistance, and emergency safe houses.
Minnie Grey spoke about this document. “Our team developed very good tools in order to assist anyone in all walks of life. COVID made it even more difficult to access services, even the local ones, because they were shut down. So, it was really important for us to make sure that people knew that they were not alone, and that support was still available.”
The document included a reference to ‘Natural Helpers’ who had to transform the way they worked, like most people, during the pandemic. Minnie Grey explained what they did.
“We maintain an Inuit Values and Practices Department here at the health board and we have people who we call Natural Helpers. They are the ones who deal with families in crisis. During COVID when travel was shut down, they were not able to do community visits, so they were key in being available by phone. They are all Inuit and most are women, but there are also a few men who assist them.”
The coronavirus affects the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, more gravely. Thus, some people were essentially closed off from contact, and truly isolated. The NRBHSS also had a “Friendly Call” service to ensure people who fell into this category were taken care of.
“Friendly calls were done mainly by the Natural Helpers, and staff from social services,” said Minnie Grey. “We would follow up from referrals, and also from relatives who were concerned, who felt that the people at home needed a discussion, or a distraction.”
On the other side of Nunavik, in Puvirnituq, Mina Beaulne helped her community get through the heavy lockdown phase of the pandemic, from the end of March to June. Mina’s day job is Advisor for Integrated Youth and Family services. She went on the local FM-Radio during the COVID lockdown to distract and entertain the community of Puvirnituq (POV).
“We were in confinement. We were told not to visit anymore. We had cases, and everybody got scared. Our local radio station is a main resource in the community. Everybody goes through radio. I called my bosses saying we need to take care of the mental health of the community. All we heard was COVID, COVID, COVID. So, I got approval from my boss, and a small budget, to do a radio project.”
Mina said she started by telling stories about how people survived in the past. “So many elders started calling in,” said Mina. “How bad it was, how many people passed away, from measles. Callers were in their 60s, and 70s.”
“My rule on the radio was, ‘don’t talk about COVID’! We had a theme every night. One night we told supernatural stories. We did guessing games. We had a family night when people had to sing a song. We had a talent night too. It wasn’t a big competition. We were just playing and entertaining each other,” said Mina.
The ‘no COVID’ rule was broken because there were many calls from people who were afraid they had the disease. So, Mina had a nurse come on the radio to take calls, with interpretation.
Down south in the Montreal area, Vickie Okpik does double duty as a Corrections Coordinator for the Justice Department by day, and fashion designer by night. She oversees the transfer of Inuit inmates back to the Nunavik region. They quarantine for 14 days before heading back to Nunavik, in hotels.
Vickie is well known as a fashion designer, and naturally, during the pandemic she was making masks. Inuit organizations such as Avataq, and ITK ordered some. She also sent some to Quebec Premier Legault so he could wear them during his daily press conferences on TV. She received a nice letter back from the premier thanking her.
Her masks are made out of cotton, with layers. They have an opening on the side if you want to put a filter inside. But are they fashion masks to walk down the catwalk in? “Hahaha,” she laughed. “No, they’re just regular masks. I try to make them with a bit of style in them. Some have flowers, and trim, no sealskin masks!”
Salluit was the first community in Nunavik to have a case of COVID-19 at the end of March. It was dealt with carefully by the health board, but people were scared.
Susie Sakiagak works at Integrated Pre-Natal and Early Childhood Services in Salluit. Like Mina Beaulne in POV, her work slowed down, and she asked her boss if she could help the community. She built up a team made up of coworkers, other health workers, Kativik Regional Government workers, and a permanent part-time person to help. Together they created a project called Saputjiqatigilluta, which means “support each other” in Inuktitut.
She went from being bored to super busy very quickly. They developed a wide range of projects, and the glue was the Saputjiqatigilluta Facebook page where people shared their experiences.
“We started with a weekly radio show about COVID,” said Susie. “We always had nurses and doctors to answer questions for an hour. We changed the topic every week.”
Because elders were asked to stay at home, they brought food baskets to their houses. They also thought of children and youth. “We did a lot for children, for example we held a TikTok contest, and a painting contest, where they could post it on our Facebook page. We had youth volunteers provide radio shows, playing favourite songs.”
Baking was very popular too. “We were baking for pregnant mothers, providing the recipes so they can do it at home. We asked people who were baking at lot at home to share their recipes with everyone. We also asked parents to share pictures of how to prepare country foods, such as plucking geese, or how to cook fish,” she said.
Outside, they had a fishing derby, and got together in groups of 10 for distance walking or running. Susie explained, “We had a project with father and son, or uncle and nephew, for example make a snowmobile or qamotik out of wood. People did do-it-yourself projects and posted what they made on our Facebook page.”
The efforts by Mina Beaulne in Puvirnituq, Vickie Okpik in the Montreal area, and Susie Sakiagak and her team in Salluit demonstrate the creativity Minnie Grey spoke about. She said, “People shared what they are doing, using social media, showing how to keep busy, baking, sewing, hunting, being out there, reminding people that things are OK. Being busy and being safe mattered!”
Speaking with Minnie, Vickie, Susie, and Mina brought out the positive in a very difficult situation for everyone. It was the great unknown, and there was genuine fear, and people did get sick, but recovered. Mina Beaulne in POV found another silver lining. “We had a beautiful summer. It was +29C, with no mosquitos. We picked berries. We went to the beach. It was like a reward!”