Christa Kunuk had a career-altering moment while in her early years as a counsellor at Nakasuk School in Iqaluit.
A restless and troubled young boy approached her and said, “If I grow up, I’m going to be a carpenter.”
The word “if,” grabbed Kunuk. It shook her.
“It wasn’t, ‘When I grow up,’ it was, ‘If I grow up,’” she recalls. “That was the moment that I knew that working with children and youth was really where I wanted to be. They all grow up and I want them to have the best life possible and give everybody the same opportunities.”
Fortunately, she stills sees that young man around Iqaluit and he seems to be doing well, she adds.
Kunuk, who already had her early childhood education certificate, aspired to aid children beyond the boundaries of a school office.
“I absolutely loved that profession (school counsellor), but one thing that I did see was that I could only support and help these kids between 8 (a.m.) and 5 (p.m.), Monday through Friday,” she says.
When a child and youth advocate position became available through the Representative for Children and Youth Office in Iqaluit five years ago, she felt compelled to apply, and she was subsequently hired. Her job entails advocating for young people’s needs and navigating through government programs and services, such as helping them obtain eyeglasses, for example.
In extreme circumstances, abused and neglected children must be removed from homes for their own safety.
Many of the cases that come through her office deal with child protection, which is what Kunuk is specializing in as she advances through the fourth and final year of the bachelor’s degree in child and youth care program at the University of Victoria.
Among the courses she’s taking are working with children and youth who have mental health issues and suffer from addictions, developing critical thinking skills and Indigenous studies.
“We’ve also been learning about the colonial policies and systems that are still in place, that still oppress – (from the) history of residential schooling to present day – and how we can decolonize our practice,” she says, describing the University of Victoria as “very progressive” in regards to Indigenous learning.
Returning to school in her 40s has been “really enjoyable,” she says, noting that the last time she was in a formal learning environment was in the early 2000s when she earned a two-year mental health diploma program through Nunavut Arctic College
“I’m so glad I did this… I think people, especially older people like myself, even if they’re feeling like they don’t know, just go for it. If you have an opportunity to do it, just do it,” she says of higher learning.
Since she’s been in the child welfare field for a couple of decades, some of her fellow students – many of them about 20 years younger than she is – turn to her for advice based on her extensive experience.
Taking care of one’s self
Program participants are also taught about self-care because there is a great deal of tension associated with assisting children who come from troubled environments – from newborns to those in their late teens.
The students sometimes open their classes by meditating and deep breathing, Kunuk says.
“(It’s about) leaving your biases and values at the door, which is good when you’re dealing with young people, and checking in with yourself,” she explains. “It’s a really refreshing aspect for me, having ways to be mindful not just of others but for yourself too.”
She’s in school two days per week and her classes run three hours apiece. Each day, she puts in an additional two to three hours of work and studies, she says.
“If you don’t, it catches up with you and it can be quite stressful,” she says of time management.
She gets to spend some of her spare hours with her husband and youngest daughter, who accompanied her to Victoria for this school year, unlike the previous year. It had been difficult without them, she admits.
“You do get a bit homesick,” she says. “It was very hard not to have that family connection.”