Dina Koonoo Arreak of Pond Inlet speaks to committee about education barriers in the North
NationTalk: Nunatsiaq News – Children in Nunavut are going to school hungry due to the high cost of food, according to a Pond Inlet educator who testified Wednesday before a Canadian Senate committee.
Dina Koonoo Arreak, a 28-year-old early childhood program manager at Pirurvik Preschool, was one of five youth representatives selected to speak to the Senate Committee on Indigenous Peoples in a hearing on education barriers in Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities.
Brian Francis, a Mi’kmaw senator from Prince Edward Island, directly asked Koonoo Arreak if children show up to school without breakfast. Her answer: yes. “I’ve seen many families that aren’t able to afford [food] that can last them to another pay,” Koonoo Arreak told senators. “From my work, we sometimes distribute food for the parents.”
Food security isn’t the only barrier to education in Nunavut, she said. Adults hoping to earn a post-secondary education also face challenges. Koonoo Arreak told senators that many Nunavummiut who hope to go back to school have children. The lack of childcare services makes it more difficult to pursue those studies, and many people don’t want to leave their children behind to earn a degree.
On top of that, overcrowded housing means students might have trouble finding a quiet place to study, and tuition support isn’t readily available. “It’s hard leaving a community where you grew up, and leaving your family and friends when you have to attend college,” Koonnoo Arreak said. “Sometimes the [student assistance] funds don’t make it on time, which makes it hard to put food on the table and pay bills.”
She also shared her personal story of overcoming adversity to finish school and build the career she’s in now. While Koonoo Arreak was in high school, her mother, Martha Koonoo, died. Koonoo Arreak said that in the difficult period after her mother’s death, she had trouble focusing in class and contemplated dropping out.
But wanting to do good for her father Solomon Koonoo, and with the support from teachers, a therapist and other family she persevered. Koonoo Arreak highlighted her story as an example of the way students can succeed when they are given the opportunity, despite setbacks.
“There were days where I wanted to quit, but I wanted to make my dad proud of me,” she said. “I never thought I would do what I went through after losing my mother, but I did it.”
In an interview after the hearing, Koonoo Arreak said there were two key policy areas she hopes to see senators legislate: reducing both food prices and teaching-position vacancies in the North. “I want to be heard for the prices: how much we spend or how much the food costs,” she said.