Volume 29 - Number 17 - Thursday, May 29, 1997

Pride in her accomplishments

by Eric Smith
Social work graduate Lolly Annahatak in fron of Kuujjuaq's Inukshuk


Adapting to McGill's academic environment can be a bit of a challenge for most new students but few face the same hurdles as graduating social work student Lolly Annahatak.

Annahatak, who is blind, grew up in Kangirsuk--population 351--on Ungava Bay in Northern Quebec. Her first language is Inuktitut. After completing a certificate course in Northern Social Work Practice offered by McGill in Nunavik, Annahatak decided to come down to Montreal and complete a full bachelor's degree at McGill's School of Social Work.

Now working with the Social Service Centre in Kuujjuaq, she is the first native professional social worker in the region.

"I am proud of myself," she says about her accomplishments. And she concedes that spending close to three years away from home at McGill wasn't always easy. "I felt so alone my first and second year," she says, "but the experience helped me in understanding who I am."

Many of the difficulties Annahatak faced can be attributed to cultural differences, she says. Southerners often seemed "very cold." And at McGill, "Everyone seems to be working individually instead of cooperating."

But Annahatak adds that cultural differences cut both ways and that Montrealers who go to work up north "need a lot of support as well."

Social Work professor Liesel Urtnowski pioneered the Northern Social Work project in 1982. That's when Annahatak, then a community worker in Kangirsuk, began taking courses towards her certificate.

Urtnowski says she was consistently impressed with Annahatak's dedication to completing her degree. And she stresses the importance of training native people to take over the social work profession in their communities.

"What native people bring to the program is knowledge of their people," says Urtnowski. "When white workers go up north, we don't know the people as well. We come up with a university education but that's only half of the story. They blend their ways with our ways and that's where the solution is. It's forging a whole new way of working. I have to give them a lot of credit."

Annahatak doesn't have much time to rest on her laurels. Like many northern communities, Kuujjuaq has more than its share of problems with suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and family violence. Annahatak says many of these difficulties can be attributed to the rapid changes northern native society has undergone in the last half century. "Fifty years ago there was no alcohol or drugs," she says. "We didn't have daily flights in and out of Kuujjuaq. I've seen even in the last 10 years, the problems of suicide and alcoholism get worse."

The pressures of work don't always leave Annahatak enough time to pursue her first love. "Being in an office like this means I can't go fishing as much as I would want," she says. But she adds that she tries to get out on the land every chance she gets.

Urtnowski says she hopes Annahatak's success will encourage more Inuit to come and study at McGill. Two more students, Martha Samjuali of Salluit and Mary Tukkiapik of Kuujjuak are completing the certificate program this year. And Urtnowski is expecting another native student to begin the bachelor program at McGill in September.

"The reason more don't come down is their families. Husbands often don't want them to go," says Urtnowski. And she adds many prospective students are unable to find care for their children, or else see different food and cultural ways as a barrier.

Annahatak says she would be happy to share her experiences with other Inuit who want to come study in Montreal. "I would certainly support them," she says.

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