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Cuts to Quebec’s Inuit hockey program don’t see the real goal

Yves Boisvert is a columnist for La Presse.

If you want to kill your dog, accuse him of having rabies, a French author once said.

The Makivik Corporation did not kill the celebrated hockey program founded by former NHL player Joé Juneau in Nunavik, Que. But it chopped its funding by almost half, arguing it failed to lower crime and school dropout rates and was not sufficiently linked with indigenous culture.

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But can a single initiative solve all the deep social problems of a neglected region?

Mr. Juneau, a former player with Boston, Washington and Montreal, started the program in 2006. He went to live in Kuujjuaq, Que., for two years with his family and travelled the 14 Inuit villages in the province's Great North to organize a hockey program with the purpose of keeping young people active and in school.

The program has three components: local hockey training, regional tournaments and an elite group selected to play in national tournaments in southern Quebec or Ontario, where they have performed surprisingly well over the years.

After praise and enthusiasm, criticism and complaints started. Some were angry about the selection of the players. Others said instead of promoting school, the tournaments and training camps forced kids to miss class too often. Some complained the program was not really a crime prevention initiative, under which it is funded.

The funds come from Makivik Corp., which manages locally a budget coming from the Quebec government under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

An evaluation of the 10-year program was commissioned to Goss Gilroy, an independent firm. An evaluator travelled the region and interviewed 141 people.

The report concluded that, "While an indirect impact on crime prevention is possible within the Northern Youth Hockey Development Program, there is no evidence to support that it does have these results."

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The findings said it was impossible to collect data to assess the impact of the program on participants. It relied on general police statistics showing that, in the past five years, assaults and sexual assaults have gone up in the region.

The report concedes that enthusiasm for hockey has gone up, and considering the lack of organized recreation in Nunavik, this in itself is worthy.

Based on this assessment, Makivik Corp. decided to maintain the program, but only the local and regional aspects. The national program, costing 45 per cent of the budget, has been cut.

The whole operation costs $2.2-million a year and involves 440 boys and girls, between the ages of 5 and 16, in all communities. This is an average of almost $5,000 a child, and close to $15,000 for the 80 who are selected for the elite teams.

For Mr. Juneau, cutting the select teams is nonsense. Even if the elite program is costly, due to travel expenses, it is a superb tool of motivation for the young. It is a key part of the program, he says.

"I respect their decision, but please don't tell me it has no impact. We have too many testimonies of the positive impact of the program on the lives of the kids," Mr. Juneau said.

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The $233,000 salary of Mr. Juneau raises some eyebrows – and, perhaps, jealousy. The job is "more than full time," he says, even though he does not live in the North any more and only visits occasionally.

The program is certainly not perfect. But it is sad seeing such an initiative amputated just because it failed to be a miracle solution for all of Nunavik's problems.

Is it the responsibility of Mr. Juneau's team to fix all the societal challenges, when simply operating the local arena and finding fuel for the Zamboni are challenging enough?

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