‘When am I coming home?’: Vulnerable Nunavut kids face loneliness, despair as millions spent sending them south

Click to play video: 'Nunavut kids in care: Who is watching the children?'
Nunavut kids in care: Who is watching the children?
WATCH: Who is watching the children? – Mar 1, 2024

Iqaluit, Nunavut Connie MacIntosh was working as a social service worker in Pond Inlet, a tiny hamlet in Nunavut, when her phone rang.

On the line was a representative from a company operating group homes for youth in southern Ontario, more than 3,000 kilometres away.

She said the caller had a request: they wanted kids from Nunavut.

“They would call up and go like, ‘We’ve got three empty beds,’” said MacIntosh, who was a supervisor for Nunavut’s Department of Family Services between 2012 and 2017 and is now retired.

“Well, what do you expect me to do? Go out and apprehend three kids to send them to you?”

A months-long Global News investigation has found that amid a backdrop of what workers describe as aggressive targeting and recruitment efforts, Nunavut was billed 53 per cent more per day, on average, for a child to live in an Ontario group home compared with what children’s aid societies in Ontario paid.

Click to play video: 'The New Reality: The Business of Indigenous Kids in Care'
The New Reality: The Business of Indigenous Kids in Care

The government of Nunavut is responsible for placing kids into group or foster care arrangements. Over the last four years, it spent millions sending its youth outside the territory.

Despite that, Global’s investigation found that some kids and teens received inadequate care when sent south, according to internal government emails, group home inspections, and interviews with more than 45 former group home workers, former government staff and other Inuit child-welfare experts.


“It’s more money. You get a (daily fee) that is double if not triple the (daily fee) you would get from a youth in Ontario,” said a former group home worker from eastern Ontario, whom Global News is not identifying because they fear professional reprisals.

For years, the territorial government has been sending its young people to group and foster homes in provinces like Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba. Nunavut Family Services Minister Margaret Nakashuk recently told the legislative assembly that 84 kids currently in the child-welfare system are living outside the territory.

Click to play video: '‘These are lives. They’re not a commodity’: Indigenous kids in care allegedly targeted by for-profit companies'
‘These are lives. They’re not a commodity’: Indigenous kids in care allegedly targeted by for-profit companies

Some youth are flown from Nunavut because of serious medical needs that require access to nearby hospitals or specialists — and often move into medical foster homes.

Others are sent south because of the physical or sexual abuse they’ve experienced, their parents cannot care for them, or their personal challenges prove too much for their families.

Some of those youth end up in group homes, an arrangement under which multiple kids live in one house and are supervised by company staffers who work shifts in rotation.

Global News obtained and analyzed approximately 8,000 pages of contracts between the Nunavut government and companies that operate group, foster or staff-model homes outside the territory. The data was compared against spending by Ontario children’s aid societies serving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

What Global News found left one Nunavut politician angered and shocked.

Nunavut MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone spoke with Global News in October 2023. (Global News)

Nunavut paid 53 per cent more per day, on average, for a child 18 and under to live in an Ontario group home not operated by a children’s aid society, compared with what Ontario child protection agencies paid between 2019 and 2021.

Over those three years, Ontario agencies paid an average of $440 for each day a child spent in a group home, while Nunavut paid $672 per day, according to Nunavut government data obtained under freedom of information legislation.

Adam Arreak Lightstone, a Member of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, slammed the pricing discrepancies as a modern form of “colonialism.”

“That’s unacceptable. That’s gouging,” Lightstone said.

“This is a perfect example of racism that still occurs that many people don’t notice.”

“We’re here in a housing crisis. … We don’t have enough funds to expand programs and services, and yet here we are overpaying for services,” he added.

Group home companies contacted by Global News said the contracts for Nunavut are higher because they include extra services – which are documented and approved by Nunavut’s Department of Family Services.

‘They can charge anything’

Cassandra Yantha, a former supervisor with Nunavut’s Department of Family Services, spoke with Global News. (Global News)

Etched out of rock and snow with towering mountains and pristine inlets of arctic waters, Nunavut is home to nearly 37,000 people, 84 per cent of whom are Inuit.


There are just 20 group home beds at three facilities located in the territory. A housing shortage and overcrowding have left few options for foster placements or for families to take in relatives.

A scarcity of services for people with addiction and mental health problems also has worsened the situation, leaving little help for struggling parents.

“Ontario group homes are well aware of this gap in services and resources. (They’re) essentially vultures to children and youth who are suffering,” said Cassandra Yantha, another former supervisor with Nunavut’s Department of Family Services.

“They know that the service they’re offering is needed,” she said.

From 2019 to 2022, the Nunavut government awarded nearly $41.4-million worth of contracts for out-of-territory care across the country for young people in its child-welfare system, including foster and group homes, according to Global News’ analysis of government contracts.

Service providers in Ontario received almost 62 per cent of that total, or $25.6 million. Smaller amounts went to providers in Alberta and Manitoba.

During a trip to Nunavut, Global News requested interviews with Premier P.J. Akeeagok and Minister of Family Services Margaret Nakashuk. Both declined.

Nunavut’s Department of Family Services said in a statement it was unaware that group homes were charging the territory more than Ontario child protection agencies.

“We have not conducted a financial audit of the prices being charged for care within other jurisdictions,” the department said. “We are limited to selecting service providers from those companies that submit proposals (to Nunavut).”

‘Speak f—ing English’

When kids are flown to Ontario group and foster homes, the care is not only expensive, it varies dramatically.

Some companies attempt to connect Inuit youth with their culture and create a welcoming home.

But other homes were highly punitive, providing little therapy, and were staffed by employees who were often unqualified or lacked resources to properly care for kids with complex needs, former workers said.

Some kids would arrive thousands of kilometres from their home communities frightened and unable to leave their rooms, former workers said.

Some youth were sworn at for speaking Inuktitut, according to a former worker.

“They would just yell at them ‘speak f—ing English.’ They’d swear at them all the time,” they said.

Advocates in Ontario and Nunavut said Global’s findings highlight a system that traumatises Inuit youth by removing them from their communities and culture.

If this was happening anywhere else, as Canadians, we would stand up and say, ‘No way,’” said Karen Baker-Anderson, the former executive director of Inuuqatigiit, an Inuit centre in Ottawa.

“Yet this is happening in our own country, to our First People who we’ve already done so much harm to.”

Nunavut, like the rest of Canada, is reconciling with past mistreatment of its Indigenous people.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, the federal government assigned “Eskimo” ID numbers inscribed on leather discs as a personal identification system for Inuit.

A tag that was issued as part of the federal government’s ‘Eskimo Identification Tag System.’. (Barry Pottle/Art Gallery of Hamilton)

During roughly this same period, Inuit who were sickened with tuberculosis were removed from their communities by the federal government and sent south to sanitariums after long, gruelling trips.


Many died. Often, bodies were not returned to families.

And beginning in the 1950s, Inuit children in the eastern Arctic were sent to federal day schools and hostels.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the “colonial and misguided” government policies that were used to manage Inuit tuberculosis patients — which have had a lasting impact on generations of parents and their kids.

Nunavut’s rates of child poverty and family and intimate partner violence were the highest in the country in 2022, Statistics Canada says.

From Iqaluit to Ottawa

Qalapik Tooloogak, 24, spoke with Global News. She was sent to Ontario in the hope of finding support as a young person. At 15, she said she was placed at an Ottawa group home.

Qalapik Tooloogak, 24, doesn’t hesitate when asked about her father’s own federal government-issued “Eskimo” identification number.


When Tooloogak was just 12, her mother died by suicide. With her family struggling, she too battled self-destructive behaviours, like “huffing gas” or inhaling gasoline fumes to get high.

By the time she was a teenager, she was flown to a group home in Ontario.

Tooloogak said she was initially excited to live in the city of Ottawa.

Once inside the walls of Mary Homes in the Ottawa area, however, she was immediately overwhelmed by the rigidity and “brutal” realities of life in a group home.

“It was horrible,” she said.

Youth were violently restrained, food access was restricted, and there was little to no help connecting with her language, Tooloogak said. One worker, however, told Global News that Mary Homes did ask staff to attend classes to learn some Inuktitut.

Click to play video: 'Investigation finds youth in Ontario’s child welfare system restrained over 2,000 times in one year'
Investigation finds youth in Ontario’s child welfare system restrained over 2,000 times in one year

Asked if there were any cultural offerings for Inuit youth, Tooloogak said: “Once in a blue moon? Not really.”

Mary Homes did not respond to a request for an interview or to a detailed list of questions.

Tooloogak said she became increasingly isolated.

In the end, her time in the group home left her with dark, painful memories: she began running away and engaging in self-harm.

“I couldn’t really talk to anybody or go have something to eat whenever I wanted,” she said.

“I used to speak Inuktitut more. I blame Ontario for losing it.”

Unpaid bills, allegations of no therapy

A former Alliance worker spoke with Global News in an interview.

From Ottawa to the Greater Toronto Area, Global News found companies that billed the territory for millions of dollars in contracts over a four-year period.


Among them is Alliance Youth Services, which operates foster and staff-model homes in eastern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area. In its staff-model homes, there was only one youth in each house, overseen by staff.

The company was paid nearly $2.1 million to care for kids from Nunavut between 2019 and 2022, according to a Global News analysis of contract data.

Alliance’s staff-model placements cost Nunavut $1,143 per day on average. Billing for one contract in particular topped $400,000 in a year.

Despite being paid millions, several former workers alleged that Alliance rarely gave Indigenous kids therapy, there was little to no cultural programming, and safety plans for youths in care were often not followed.

Click to play video: 'How Grassy Narrows is fighting to keep its kids out of the child-welfare system'
How Grassy Narrows is fighting to keep its kids out of the child-welfare system

The company sometimes failed to pay rent, as well as its water, electric and telecom utilities on time, according to multiple interviews, past due notices, and other notices threatening disconnections if bills went unpaid. The heat was even shut off in one home, a former worker said.

“You’re calling and begging the propane company to just go deliver a tank of propane to keep the house heated,” said one former worker, whom Global News is not identifying because they fear reprisals.

“(Alliance’s) doors should have been closed long ago. … They’re inflicting damage on (kids).”

Alliance houses youth who often have complex mental health needs or diagnoses like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Some former workers said there was extremely high turnover and the company would often hire unqualified staff.

“Some students would come to work, and they were fresh out of high school, never had a job before,” one former worker said. “Other people would have absolutely zero experience in social services. They come from a tech or financial background.”

“Kids in care always get (the message) that nobody cares about them. Companies are just there for a paycheque,” the worker added.

According to its contracts with the Nunavut government, there was an expectation that Alliance “create and deliver high-quality programming that … is knowledgeable about, and sensitive to, the cultural and community issues identified as important by the client.”

One worker cared for a teenage girl from Nunavut with complex behavioural issues. There was “no transition plan,” the former worker said, to help her deal with the culture shock of moving from Nunavut to southern Ontario.

“It’s pretty alarming given all this funding and they can’t even make it an easier transition for the individual,” the worker said. “There was no Indigenous art, nothing to make it feel like home. … It felt very institutionalized.”

Click to play video: 'Ontario proposes child welfare system changes'
Ontario proposes child welfare system changes

A 2017 safety plan, obtained by Global News, showed this teenager was identified as “high risk” for to sexual encounters with older males and required “100% supervision in the community at ALL times” because “she can be easily taken advantage of by others.”

The plan was not followed just three weeks after its creation when the youth and an adult male were left alone together, according to an internal company email obtained by Global News.

“(An adult male) disclosed that he has a crush on (the youth) and that they kissed,” Karen Catney, the director of operations with Alliance, wrote in an email to staff.

“LOL Soooooo given their difference in ages, they are NOT to see each other or have visits of any kind.”

Working conditions at Alliance were so bad that it resulted in a wave of negative online employee reviews, according to former workers. Owners began offering $50 gift cards for positive write-ups on job recruitment websites like Indeed, former workers said.

“Alliance is taking advantage of a very vulnerable population of people,” the former worker said. “It’s heartbreaking to see this continue to go on today.”


Alliance Youth Services responds

84 children and youth from Nunavut were living in out-of-territory placements, including foster and group homes, as of January 2024, according to the Department of Family Services.

Alliance Youth Services’ owner Steve Catney and his wife Karen, who is also a company director, declined an interview request.

In a statement sent to Global News, the company strongly rejected all allegations from former workers as “false,” adding there is “no targeting” of Indigenous youth and no difference in fees “based on a resident’s background.”

“As our homes are staff model programs, the fees and expenses for our homes (where there is only one resident per home) are higher,” Karen Catney stated in an email.

“We work with some extremely challenging individuals who require, in most situations, 2:1 staff complements to ensure safety and a high quality of care,” she wrote, adding that some youth who are placed in its homes have been unsuccessful in finding stability at other group or foster homes.

“For the past 19 years, we have consistently had successful audits and reviews by the (Ontario) Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services,” Catney added.

“From higher than typical recreational activity budgets, to access to therapy and healthy meals, to encouraging cultural and family connections, we work in partnership with the placing agencies/legal guardians, to develop and execute detailed and individualized plans of care.”

Alliance said that all legal matters and outstanding bills have been resolved and that some unpaid bills were an oversight because the homes were vacant at the time.

All Alliance staff, the company said, have relevant “education, training and experience.”

“The Ministry conducts an annual audit to ensure our staff have appropriate credentials and meet the legislated requirements mandated by the Child, Youth and Family Services Act,” Catney said.

The company sent over 40 unsolicited emails to Global News from Alliance workers, which spoke of “excellent,” “nurturing,” and “supportive” care, with “cultural activities” for Indigenous youth. Global News was unable to confirm the authenticity of the emails’ authors as they could not be reached or they didn’t respond to interview requests.

‘A brawl between staff and youth’

A report prepared by Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society in 2020, and obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request.

And it wasn’t just one company where Nunavut children and teens were allegedly being mistreated.

Global News obtained hundreds of pages of emails, reports and investigations that raised red flags about the quality of care Nunavut kids received in providers across Ontario’s child-welfare system.

Bayfield Treatment Centres, which operates homes in eastern Ontario, received nearly $2.6 million from Nunavut to care for kids between 2019 and 2022. While the company was raking in those contracts, alarm bells were ringing inside the local children’s aid agency and Nunavut’s Department of Family Services.

“It’s pretty much turning into a brawl between staff and youth (at Bayfield),” said an investigation report prepared by Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society in 2020.


“There have been several incidents within the last 6 months that could be constituted as a riot.”

Internal emails from Nunavut’s Department of Family Services and reports from Highland Shores CAS between 2015 and 2021 raised serious concerns that staff at Bayfield were improperly restraining children, were making “errors/falsifications” in some incident reports and omitting information from others, while children were punished for speaking their language.

“Given the seriousness, we need to seriously consider moving the child/youth,” said a worker with Nunavut’s Department of Family Services in a February 2021 email.

Click to play video: 'An Indigenous child welfare agency’s fight to restore culture and raise kids at home'
An Indigenous child welfare agency’s fight to restore culture and raise kids at home

Bayfield declined an interview request, but acknowledged in a statement it has had a “tumultuous relationship” with Highland Shores CAS “with differences of opinions on the facts.”

Bayfield also rejected allegations that it seeks or targets Indigenous youth. Former workers did not allege Bayfield charged more for Indigenous youth.

“Referrals for service are initiated by and sent to us by placing agencies and families,” the company said. “To encourage in-person family involvement, Bayfield funds hotel accommodations for parents whose children are unable to travel and where the family does not live close enough for more frequent visitation/involvement.”

Bayfield did not respond directly to a question about the 2020 investigation by Highland Shores CAS.

The company said the information Global News is presenting is incomplete and that the small percentage of verified allegations have been addressed.

Youth placed in its homes are often referred “because their mental health and behavioural management needs are beyond the capabilities of their families and/or foster parents to cope with,” the company said.

“Our staff are doing very difficult work and are often dealing with some very high-risk behaviours,” Bayfield said. “No child and youth worker wants to initiate or be involved in a physical restraint. However, there are times when these risks and worries are overshadowed by the risk of not intervening in these high-risk situations when de-escalation attempts have been unsuccessful.”

“Bayfield prides itself on the fact that the majority of (children’s aid society) investigations over the years have occurred as a result of Bayfield staff and/or management self-reporting complaints, allegations and questionable incidents to the local CAS, whether we believe them to be true or not.”

Bayfield said it works with the youth placement agency or legal guardian, and “in some cases outside consultants, to ensure cultural needs are met.”

One company: $5.8M over four years

The Global News contract data also identified the company that was paid the most money of any out-of-territory residential care provider used by Nunavut’s child-welfare system: Bairn Croft Residential Services Inc.

The Ottawa-area company and its subsidiaries received over $5.8 million between 2019 and 2022.

Several former workers said Bairn Croft made attempts to connect Inuit clients with their culture. Yet, one former worker told Global News there was a prevailing sense the company could “gouge” Nunavut because the territory had few options where it could send its kids for help.

“You’re being torn from your communities and we’re making profits,” said one former worker, whose identity Global News is protecting for fear of professional retaliation.

In all but one contract, the company charged Nunavut a base rate of $496 to care for kids 18 and under in its group homes, compared with the roughly $316 base rate it charged Ontario children’s aid agencies, contract data showed.

Bairn Croft co-founder and director Jason Moore defended the rates his company charged Nunavut, saying Ontario’s government-approved rates are outdated and do not reflect “today’s operational costs.”

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Water, housing top public health concerns in Nunavut'
Health Matters: Water, housing top public health concerns in Nunavut

The company shuttered the last of its youth group homes in 2022 after “the program was no longer financially viable,” Moore said. The for-profit company continues to operate a foster care agency, which includes caring for medically fragile youth, as well as homes for adults.


He rejected all allegations against his company, saying it “likely” turned down “as many if not more (clients from Nunavut) than we have served.”

“Placements are voluntary, include plans for repatriation where possible, include cultural access and staff training,” Moore said in an email.

He noted that Bairn Croft does not target or solicit the Government of Nunavut to place youths in its homes, adding contracts reviewed by Global News “represent less than 5% of the individuals we serve.”

“We do not agree that our costs are gouging and this is evidenced in part by the fact that we do not in many instances invoice for the fully awarded contract value.”

Moore further disputed Global’s findings, arguing that Ontario and Nunavut are not comparable as some clients from the territory are 19 and should receive adult services in Ontario at rates which are similar to Nunavut. He also said Ontario base rates do not contain other extra costs that are billed separately.

As for why kids are sent south, Moore pointed his finger at Nunavut.

“The root cause may be in part that governments do not sufficiently invest in the development of appropriate resources in their own territory,” Moore said.

Where is the accountability?

Jane Bates. Nunavut’s independent Representative for Children and Youth, spoke with Global News October 2023. (Global News)

The care currently provided to kids from Nunavut is alarming, said Jane Bates, Nunavut’s independent Representative for Children and Youth.

“I’m very frightened for children and youth and families in this territory because I don’t believe that they are getting the services and supports that they are entitled to,” Bates told Global News.

“There’s a lot of accountability and a lot of responsibility that needs to be taken on the side of Nunavut.”

Bates said Nunavut’s child-welfare system is in a state of “crisis” and the root causes of why kids are being sent away need to be urgently addressed.

“It’s housing. It’s having food. Not worrying where your next meal is going to come from,” she said. “Being able to get an education, having access to health care. It’s all of those things.

“The issues that are faced by children and youth in the north are very different from children in a large city.”

The findings of this Global News investigation follow a 2023 Auditor General of Canada report highlighting a litany of failures by Nunavut’s Department of Family Services.

Nunavut Minister of Family Services, Margaret Nakashuk, addresses the media during a press conference in Iqaluit on Feb. 3, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dustin Patar

The federal auditor found the territorial department didn’t properly respond to reports of suspected harm, failed to complete child-welfare investigations, did not adequately monitor kids in care, could not provide accurate numbers of how many children were in its care, and even lost track of the whereabouts of some kids under its care.

Nunavut social service workers also were not properly monitoring kids and youth placed in southern Canada and had not completed or tracked annual reviews for the facilities providing such care, the Auditor General found.

The report marked the third time in 12 years that the Auditor General has sounded the alarm over the quality of services for children and youth in Nunavut’s child-welfare system.

Speaking in Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly last fall, Minister Nakashuk apologized to families and “vulnerable Nunavummiut” hurt by her department’s failings and vowed to improve the system.


Jonathan Ellsworth, recently appointed deputy minister and top bureaucrat for the Department of Family Services, was summoned before legislators last September and grilled on what steps the department is taking to protect Nunavut’s children in care.

“It’s a crisis. We’ve effectively failed,” Ellsworth said during the tense hearing.

Click to play video: 'No group homes: Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s bold approach to child welfare'
No group homes: Sarnia Children’s Aid Society’s bold approach to child welfare

The department said it is working to enact a new “strategic plan” to fix the child-welfare system. The focus is on hiring more family services workers, increasing the number of beds inside the territory, and improving training and information sharing among public servants, the department said.

“We also acknowledge the work ahead of us to expand and create supports in-territory and facilitate the repatriation of children and youth who are out of territory,” a spokesperson for Nunavut’s Department of Family Services said.

Former social service workers and advocates say there is an urgent need for more money to be invested in Nunavut communities and families so the territory can keep its kids at home.

“You see the fear and the sadness in the child or youth’s eyes as they are leaving everything that they know,” said Cassandra Yantha, a former social worker in Nunavut.

“It is a system that is built on racism and removing children from their families,” she said.

Yantha said she is still haunted by kids asking her one question: “When am I coming home?”

–  With additional data analysis by Emma Wilkie