In it for the reward

The time Lynn Sparks and her son were walking along the beach in Kuujjuaq, a northern Quebec community, is engraved in her mind. 

The time Lynn Sparks and her son were walking along the beach in Kuujjuaq, a northern Quebec community, is engraved in her mind.

That’s the day they were invited to jump in a boat and tag along on a caribou hunt.

The animal was spotted, shot and brought back to the beach, where it was skinned on the spot.

The Inuit hunters showed Sparks’ son, who was four at the time, how and where to cut the meat, and gave him a chunk to take home.

It’s an experience Sparks cherishes and never would have had if she hadn’t moved there to do social work.

The Whitehorse resident is entering her 30th year in the demanding profession, having worked in remote communities across the country including in Quebec, Ontario, N.W.T. and now Yukon.

Sparks is this year’s Yukon recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Canadian Association of Social Workers.

The award serves to honour “the significant contributions made by the social work profession in support of building stronger families, communities, and a more equitable Canada,” according to the association.

Listening to Sparks speak about her experiences, one word comes back again and again: rewarding.

“You learn so much being with people who come from different cultures, who have different perspectives,” she said.

“Working with Inuit and First Nation people I’ve learned to not take myself so seriously, to roll with things easier, to laugh a bit more and be more flexible.

“I try to figure out what people need and what I can do to help them, rather than being worried about what the rules are all the time.”

Her career in the field began shortly after she obtained her bachelor of social work from McGill University in 1986.

Her first position involved dealing with women’s issues in Blanc Sablon and other smaller communities along Quebec’s lower north shore. It was challenging because services weren’t well developed and there was very little guidance for new social workers, she said.

“You’re fumbling around, trying to figure out how to put in practice what you learned in your degree,” she said.

“But it’s like that in a lot of northern communities, where you’re struggling with a lack of good policy and supervision. When you’re brand new to the field, you need that guidance.”

From there she moved back to Montreal, where she had a child, and wound up in Ontario’s cottage country to practise child welfare work in Peterborough and Haliburton County.

Working for the child welfare agency, she received the proper guidance and supervision that would eventually prepare her for a move to Kuujjuaq, where she would become a Jill of all trades between 2003 and 2009.

Although the work was challenging because of the isolation, she describes it as one of the most enriching experiences of her life.

“It was quite a good life in many ways, you develop close friendships with people and you spend time on the land,” she said.

“We had a snowmobile with a sled and an ATV for the summer. We even had an Inuit tent with a wood stove inside.

“Being able to get out on the land every weekend, we would take long walks and the kids would run and play, you never had to worry about anything.”

Sparks went back to McGill to do her masters degree, and became involved with Inuit Patient Services in Montreal.

The Inuit of northern Quebec who suffer from serious trauma or illnesses are almost always sent to facilities in Montreal, Sparks said, and she would help them navigate the challenges of living in a big city.

“We would look after them, a lot of the time they’d get in trouble in the city, they weren’t used to having easy access to drugs and alcohol.”

Sparks would organize volunteers to come and run bingo nights in their boarding homes, while others would come play Irish music.

She also worked with cancer support services in Montreal and coordinated volunteers to visit patients.

“Having to stand by people when they’re going through difficult times, that was another rich experience,” she said.

Since 2010, Sparks has worked with Yukon self-governing First Nations.

She’s been running the Ta’an Kwach’an Council’s health and social services programs for the past 18 months.

Up here, there is less emphasis on following the rules and more on meeting people’s needs, she said.

“Sometimes we get caught up with bureaucracy, working for institutions that have a lot of rules, but in the North you get opportunities to work in those institutions in a way that’s more flexible and accommodating. There’s an endless variety in my work, it keeps you from getting stale.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at