Nikki Komaksiutiksak knows what it means to feel lost.
“I know what it feels like not to feel like you’re loved or supported,” she said. “I know what it feels like to not know where your family is and not to even know who you are.”
Komaksiutiksak, 39, was six years old when she was sent from her home community of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, to live with her aunt in Winnipeg. Her mother had been unable to look after her, and so began Komaksiutiksak’s long and painful journey through a child welfare system that effectively disconnected her from her community, her culture and language.
Today, 20 years after leaving the child welfare system and still living in Manitoba, Komaksiutiksak can reflect on some of the trauma she experienced as a child. She’s also worked hard to reclaim the identity she felt was stolen from her.
It’s not easy, but Komaksiutiksak has chosen to tell her story in order to shine a light on what she calls a “deeply broken system” that has failed many people like her. She also hopes her story of resilience can inspire young people who have lived through similar experiences in a child welfare system that she describes as a “modernized version of the residential school system.”
This story contains details some readers may find triggering or disturbing. Resources are available at the bottom of the page.It’s common practice for Nunavut’s department of Family Services to send children in care thousands of kilometres away to group homes and foster families in southern Canada. The practice is a symptom of the many challenges facing the territory, including a lack of staff and resources to help children in their home communities.
The territory advocates for children under the care of Family Services to be placed with relatives when possible, to help those children maintain ties to their biological family and their culture and language.
That was the case for Komaksiutiksak who was sent to live with her aunt in Winnipeg.
On the surface, the placement seemed suitable. The Komaksiutiksak family — four young girls and the aunt — even went to Atlanta in 1996 as part of the Discover Native America festival, happening at the same time as the Olympic games. They were the only Inuit delegation at the festival, and performed drum dancing and throat singing to showcase Inuit culture for the world.
But Komaksiutiksak has few fond memories of her time in Atlanta. The traditional Inuit clothing she wore was stiflingly hot for the Georgia weather.
At least her cousin Jessica Michaels was there. The two girls had been born a few weeks apart and came to form an unbreakable bond while sharing a home with Komaksiutiksak’s aunt. In Atlanta, they performed together as throat singers and looked to the world like a happy pair.
Behind their forced smiles, though, hid years of suffering. Things were not what they seemed back home in Winnipeg. Living with their aunt was “brutal,” Komaksiutiksak recalled, choking back tears. She described being physically and sexually abused.
“There were four of us girls that lived with [our aunt] … It was absolutely horrifying and traumatic and I don’t know how we even survived what we did while living with her,” Komaksiutiksak said.
Eventually, Komaksiutiksak and Michaels fled that home and ended up in Manitoba’s child welfare system. The following years would see them placed in foster homes and several group homes, and pulled ever further away from their cultural roots. Komaksiutiksak would even lose her first language, Inuktitut.
‘I felt so lost and I felt so alone’
Trauma then seemed to follow them wherever they went. Komaksiutiksak experienced rape and domestic violence, while her cousin was sexually exploited and fell into drug abuse. Komaksiutiksak blames predators who target vulnerable girls in the child welfare system.
“I think that was a little bit of a changing point in my life because that really showed me how scary it was to be a kid in care and not to have family around me to tell me that, to show me or tell me how to be safe,” Komaksiutiksak says, looking back.
The years since have healed some wounds, but Komaksiutiksak still struggles to remember certain periods of her youth. Her memories are often distorted or disordered, particularly of her teenage years.
At 17, her relationship with her cousin Jessica was forever severed when Komaksiutiksak received a phone call telling her that Michaels had been found dead in a rooming house in Winnipeg.
The autopsy results point to suicide, but to this day Komaksiutiksak is certain that her cousin was murdered. In 2018, Komaksiutiksak would publicly testify about the circumstances of Michaels’s death before the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
To Komaksiutiksak, her cousin’s death points to the glaring shortcomings of the child welfare system. She compares it to the residential school system.
“I came from such a traumatic childhood. You take what happened to Inuit historically, and then you take that and you double it by taking them out of their territory, away from their family — and being made to defend for ourselves while in care in a city where you have no family.”
By age 19, Komaksiutiksak was the mother of three children.
“Growing up in the system I thought that I needed something to love and that’s part of the reason why I had children so young — because I felt so lost and I felt so alone.”
Markoosie Tiglik can relate to Komaksiutiksak’s experience of cultural dislocation. Tiglik, 30, was 11 years old when he was sent from Iqaluit to a group home in Edmonton.
He remembers being afraid because it was his first time in the South. He didn’t expect Edmonton to be so big. He quickly realized that he’d have to speak English in Edmonton, which wasn’t easy. He’d mostly spoken Inuktitut as a child.
“I wanted to go back home,” he recalled.
His experience living in group homes — first in Edmonton, then Regina — was mixed. He remembers incidents where staff hit or pushed him to the ground. He still feels some anger that he can no longer express himself in Inuktitut.
But those four years also offered some positive memories, he said, because he was living among other Nunavummiut.
Rachel Michael’s experience with the child welfare system was still different. She entered the system as a teenager and was placed in a foster home in Iqaluit.
Michael, 27, considers herself lucky for having had a social worker who fought to keep her in Nunavut.
But staying in the territory wasn’t without difficulty. When Michael’s trusted social worker left for another job, Michael felt like she suddenly lost an important connection. She didn’t want to have to tell her story to someone new.
“It really messes up with your attachment to people,” she said.
A system struggling to provide adequate care
Since its creation as a territory, Nunavut has relied on the South for places to send youth with complex needs, including those with behavioural and developmental challenges, young people with disabilities, or those with serious health problems.
The territory simply does not have adequate resources — including social workers, foster families — to keep all kids closer to home. Instead, the territorial government has spent an average of $17 million a year for the last five years to place kids in the South.
Currently, 81 of the 454 children and youth in Nunavut’s child welfare system are living outside the territory, mostly in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, according to the Nunavut government.
The auditor general of Canada has pointed to numerous gaps in the territory’s Social Services and Family Services departments. Two reports, from 2011 and 2014, found that Nunavut doesn’t regularly check whether an out-of-territory group home has a valid licence from its province.
A recent Radio-Canada investigation also revealed that the government of Nunavut placed eight youth who were under the protection of Family Services in unlicensed group homes in Alberta over the last year. According to information obtained by Radio-Canada, Alberta wasn’t informed about these Nunavut youth until months after their arrival. The Government of Nunavut said earlier this month it had hired a lawyer to investigate what happened.
“All kinds of issues come with when your department is so short-resourced,” she said.
Niego believes the long-term solution involves training and recruiting more Inuit staff to work in Family Services. It also involves addressing issues like food security, which contribute to the need for child welfare services.
The lack of resources is not new. Aleisha Wesley worked as a social worker in Iqaluit until 2015 when she quit because of burnout. She remembers having an “extreme” case load, with little support available. She once had a child stay with her for two weeks because there was no foster family available.
“We were just … putting out fires,” Wesley recalled. “If we didn’t have placements, we would sleep in the office with kids.”
Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok also acknowledges the ongoing problems and shortcomings of the system. But he says his government is doing all it can to provide services to young Nunavummiut. Relying on southern provinces is a “last safety net,” he said.
“Right now, we don’t have the capacity or the capability to provide specialized care. And until then, we have to rely on services outside of our territory right now who provide these very special levels in terms of the care that’s needed,” Akeeagok said.
“It’s sometimes not monetary. It’s really people that we need to implement the mandate that we have.”
In 2007, Nikki Komaksiutiksak was 23 and working hard to take control of her life. She decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work with the hope of giving voice to others who have struggled in the child welfare system.
“I needed to find a way that this didn’t happen to other Inuit,” she said.
She also co-founded the Manitoba Inuit Association with the idea of helping provide more support and services to Inuit in the province.
A decade later, in 2017, she helped create another organization in Winnipeg, Tunngasugit, which means “welcome” in Inuktitut. She’s now the executive director.
One of the goals has been to help children “who were getting lost in the South,” Komaksiutiksak said.
The organization is comparable to the Ottawa non-profit Tungasuvvingat Inuit, which offers cultural programs and aims to support youth placed in Ontario homes, and their families. It also advocates for more cooperation between the Nunavut government and Inuit community organizations in the South, when it comes to supporting youth.
“Right now, there’s no kind of systematic way of knowing where the youth are placed,” said Julie Hodson, manager of child services at Tungasuvvingat Inuit.
“We’re really trying to get a better understanding of where these youth are being placed and how many there are, so that we can proactively reach out and support them. But we can’t support if we don’t know where people are,” Hodson said.
Komaksiutiksak, now 39, feels she’s overcome some of the trauma from her past. She’s taught a course on Inuit society and culture at the University of Winnipeg, and in recent years has also taken in girls placed in the care of Manitoba’s and Nunavut’s child welfare systems.
She remembers the pain of losing her cousin, Jessica, and she’s grateful that her own life took a different turn.
“I have a lot of friends that have either been murdered, or are super-addicted to drugs or alcohol that are on the streets, or … that are incarcerated for the rest of their life,” she said. “I could have turned out like any of that.”
Komaksiutiksak knows that there’s no easy fix for the many issues plaguing Nunavut’s the child welfare system and for the trauma and dislocation experienced by many kids.
But she hopes her own story can shine a light on some of those issues and ultimately help ensure more young Inuit have a safe place to call home.
With files from Pauline Pemik | Translation from the French by Emma Tranter
Editing by Paul Tukker | Layout by Chris Windeyer
To read the original article in French, click here.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:
- In Nunavut, reach the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line 24/7 at 1-800-265-3333 or 867-979-3333.
- Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text between 4 p.m. and midnight ET).
- Hope For Wellness Helpline: 1-855-242-3310 (phone, available in Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway upon request).
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
- This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.