Population explosion
Diverse Northern cultures complicate family size issue

by Chris Meyers Almey
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 17/97) - Doing something about the baby boom isn't going to be easy.

But unless Northern taxpayers are willing to bear the economic cost of a massive youth population, birth rates will have to brought down.

So far, however, Northern politics has made little effort.

Considering the North's eight languages and diverse cultures, it isn't surprising everyone holds strong views on the most basic and vital of all human urges, reproduction of the species.

But discussions surrounding the issue are anything but frank and open.

The legislature's standing committee on social issues peeked at reproduction. Its February report mentions aspects of the issue, but volunteers no solutions to the North's explosive population growth.

The executive directors of the Native Women's Association and the Status of Women's Council of the NWT address the subject with extreme caution.

"Be careful," said one. It's too sensitive to sensationalize, said the other.

Arviat is a good example of the state of affairs. Most middle-aged women in the hamlet have eight or nine children, but the size of families is shrinking, with many younger mothers preferring four or five babies.

In southern Canada, the typical family has two children.

More people are moving out of the territory than moving in, yet the population is soaring. Northern babies are born at three times the national average. That works out to about 1,500 new Northerners a year.

In 1991 some 33 per cent of the North's population was 14 or younger. By 1995, the national figure was just 19 per cent.

Looking for solutions

Sharon Buness-Hall, executive director of the Status of Women Council, says she's pleased the government has identified the issue as important.

The council shares that concerns, and wants to address the matter through a three-year program.

"We see a natural role for us in supporting the government in developing policies and programs in relation to this issue," Buness-Hall says.

The council had talked about it before and is in the process of securing funding for a comprehensive study of the reason behind the territories' high birth rates.

There has never been such a study and the council would like to be able to ask women themselves about the influence in their lives when it comes to having babies.

The matter must be handled sensitively in a manner that doesn't violate human rights, Buness-Hall says.

That means it must be respectful of women's choices. "We believe we will need to have comprehensive public education on this issue," she says.

Through a study the council undertook on women and substance abuse, plus its studies on fetal alcohol syndrome, it learned that very often the circumstances of women's lives determine their behavior.

Circumstances like violent sex abuse, poverty and poor housing.

"It's easy to blame women but the real solutions will really lie in addressing the circumstances in their lives," Buness-Hall says.

Sexual lessons

The high number of births to young mothers indicates an acceptance of sexual activity among many of the North's youth, the legislature's standing committee on social issues reports.

Yellowknife MLA Roy Erasmus, who has done some thinking about the problem, says parents aren't doing enough to discourage their children from having kids of their own.

"We are finding out that a lot of people in the North like being grandparents and they're not telling the kids they shouldn't be parents," he says.

A subsidized birth control program is an obvious answer, but Erasmus says he thinks that's already in place. As most people in the smaller communities are aboriginal, they can get the pill for free.

"I do know they give out condoms, but the wrong people are giving them out. Kids are too shy to get them. We have got to find another method to give them out -- youth counsellors or something."

Other say the problem is more complex.

"For some young women it may be more than acceptance of sexual activity. For example, young women who have grown up with child sex abuse may not have the possibility of the word 'No!' in their lives," says Buness-Hall.

"Young men who grow up with violence may feel it's OK to coerce girls, whether they want to or not."

The council realizes the issue won't be solved easily, she says. "It is important to get a handle on why it happens, to design a solution."

To that end they do have a model. The International Planned Parenthood Association recognizes the best work they do is through their healthy sexuality program, Buness-Hall says.

In such a program, both sexuality and the consequences of sex are talked about in positive terms, she says.