Football helping fight suicide in the Canadian Arctic
Nunavut is a huge territory that forms most of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago
While COVID-free, the region has a notoriously high suicide rate
Football, despite facing many challenges, is helping provide a positive focus
Nunavut has found itself in the headlines lately. Canada’s largest and northernmost territory has come under the global spotlight because, almost uniquely in North America, it remains completely free of COVID-19.
The isolation of this vast Arctic region, which has no road or rail network and is only reachable year-round by plane, has undoubtedly contributed to this remarkable status. But while clear of the coronavirus, Nunavut – home to 36,000 people spread over two million square kilometres – faces another insidious and well-established threat.
Suicide has long been, and remains today, one of territory’s biggest killers. Nunavut’s suicide rate is nine times the national average and, if it was an independent country, that rate would be the highest of any nation in the world.
“We’ve avoided the COVID pandemic thankfully, but suicide is our epidemic,” said Joselyn Morrison, president of the Nunavut Soccer Association. “It’s a massive challenge up here – the biggest one we have.”
Morrison, and the sport she loves, are also helping to tackle the issue. While football lags some distance behind ice hockey as the territory’s most popular sport, it nonetheless provides an invaluable focal point around which physical health and mental wellbeing can flourish.
“It’s so important to offer people in this territory, and especially young people, stuff to do,” Morrison told FIFA.com. “I live in the biggest community here in Nunavut (Iqaluit, the territory’s capital), but we’re still really small – just 8000 people. And having things to do, and to look forward to, is a real challenge – especially during the dark winter months.
“The more activities we can offer people, the better. Soccer, and sport in general, is so important in that respect because, as anyone who plays soccer knows, it is so positive for both physical and mental health.”
Nunavut, though, is a territory in which temperatures can drop as low as -50°C, and where the soil is locked in permafrost. Not, in other words, conditions in which the beautiful game would ordinarily thrive. Adaptability, and an embracing of futsal, have been crucial to ensuring the game’s continued place in the region’s sporting landscape.
“Aside from the odd pickup game outside over the summer, soccer is definitely an indoor sport for us,” Morrison acknowledged. “Here in Iqaluit we usually play in a gym, although we do have an artificial turf put in for us in from May to September in one of our hockey arenas. We’ve also put a lot of focus on futsal recently because that’s what they play at the Arctic Winter Games.
“The travel, the geography, are the biggest challenges soccer faces here. We try to host two tournaments a year – one at U-15 level and one at U-18 level – and the travel and cost of flights make it very difficult. The cost is outrageous really.
“Teams from small communities will do a lot of fundraising to come to these tournaments. But then what you often find is that the day arrives for them to travel to Iqaluit and there’s a winter storm or a blizzard, and they can’t fly. Being at the mercy of the weather makes it very tough to organise things.”
Geographical and financial challenges also loom over any attempt to leave Nunavut for competitions in neighbouring territories. “I coach mainly middle school girls, U-12s and U-14s, and we’re the only middle school in the town, so there’s no-one for them to compete against and that’s tough,” Morrison explained.
“But there’s a tournament called Super Soccer in Yellowknife (capital of the Northwest Territories, 1,400 miles from Iqaluit) and we fundraise all year to travel to that. For the flights, hotels and so on – and this is just for a weekend – it costs us between $85,000 and $100,000. That tells you the kind of resource we need just to compete against other teams.
“We have fun raising the funds though, and it’s so worth it when we get there. Some of the kids have never left the community or the territory, and it’s things that you wouldn’t expect that blow them away when we get to Yellowknife. Trees are a good example – there are no trees here – and McDonald’s too! (laughs)
"It’s a lot of money but it’s such a great experience. That trip, and being part of a team, is something that will leave the girls with great memories their whole life. That’s part of what makes soccer so special for us.”