Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Ottawa March 24, 2017 - 11:45 am

Tungasuvvingat Inuit celebrates 30 years as urban Inuit population grows

"We’re trying to focus on community development and not just community services"

Nunavut Sivuniksavut students and other Inuit dance to live music at a March 18 event in Ottawa to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tungasuvvingat Inuit, an Ottawa-based Inuit service agency. (PHOTO BY COURTNEY EDGAR)
Nunavut Sivuniksavut students and other Inuit dance to live music at a March 18 event in Ottawa to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Tungasuvvingat Inuit, an Ottawa-based Inuit service agency. (PHOTO BY COURTNEY EDGAR)


OTTAWA—Isaiah McKeown-Philip, a 20-year-old Nunavut Sivuniksavut student from Iqaluit, came to the Bronson Centre in Ottawa March 18 to perform and dance.

Events like that Saturday’s 30th anniversary Spring Equinox celebration hosted by Tungasuvvingat Inuit are, to him, an important way to reconnect with Inuit in the city.

“There’s a big Inuit population in Ottawa and a lot of people are away from their friends and family,” McKeown-Philip said.

With the population of urban Inuit—estimated at roughly 3,000—on the rise in Ottawa, the need for specific services to support that population is growing too. This is also true for urban centers across the country.

TI, an organization whose name means “a place where Inuit are welcome” in English has been providing these services in Ottawa for three decades and so decided to celebrate that history with friends and family.

Local Inuit were invited to enjoy country food, throat singing, music from Twin Flames and even an acrobatic performance.

TI provides a wide range of services to newcomers from the North as well as the kind of services that more established southern Inuit might need.

From cultural workshops and language preservation, to partnering with sister organization Akausivik—which offers counselling and health care—TI has been listening to the community and expanding with it, said TI’s executive director Jason LeBlanc.

“Since 1987, there has been so much change, so much growth, but the key is that the growth has been linked with the community needs,” said LeBlanc. “So because the population has grown, it’s not only grown in numbers, but it has diversified in the nature of need.”

According to TI’s 2016 Urban Inuit Strategy report, more than one quarter of Canadian Inuit now live outside of Inuit Nunangat—the Inuit traditional homelands.

The study shows that northern challenges, such as housing, food insecurity, lack of economic and educational opportunities and medical care, contribute to this trend of southern migration.

That prompted TI in 2002 to hold a community gathering in the hope of broadening their mandate to a provincial level. As a result, they were recognized as a provincial organization for Inuit in Ontario.

“That’s because we knew we had to serve populations outside of Ottawa,” LeBlanc said.

There is now only one other Inuit organization that currently provides these kinds of services in the province, he said

“Only this past year, a group has been formed in Toronto, the Toronto Inuit Association,” LeBlanc said. “They’ve been a part of our community development.”

In 2005, three years after that first provincial gathering, TI hosted the One Voice conference, a joint venture between TI and the then-Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The meeting brought Inuit together from seven cities across Canada to share stories about living away from home.

The needs raised in those and subsequent gatherings—such as Inuit community centres in urban areas and community development—have influenced TI projects since then.

“We’re strategically focused on the delivery of service,” LeBlanc said. “We’re still doing that. But as a result of doing that for 30 years, there is also, I guess you would call it advocacy, that we’re trying to focus on community development and not just community services.”

Even in the last six months, there have been a lot of changes within TI, said Crystal Martin, TI’s cultural policy advisor for education, with the organization adding several new programs and projects to the roster.

There is a new policy department, for instance, where Martin works with the Ontario Ministry of Education on curriculum and policy frameworks.

“We’re also looking to hire a restorative justice coordinator,” Martin said.

TI has also added a justice department since Martin started working there in November as well as a family wellness program where day counsellors from Mamisarvik provide support to people who might be considering treatment for trauma and addictions.

“There are a lot of new names and a lot of new faces,” Martin said.

Jamie Lecompte, who coordinates youth programming at TI, said issues raised recently, and often, in youth circle discussions include the need to create youth-elder programs and to incorporate some “mainstream” into future cultural activities.

“I find a lot of the youth that I work with, some of them are not very familiar with their culture so it’s intimidating,” Lecompte said.

“Then they go and they don’t understand when people are speaking Inuktitut—you know, already know what they’re doing—so they’re afraid to go to these programs. They feel intimidated.”

Lecompte plans to start incorporating activities like hip hop into the cultural music programs, blending the modern with the traditional so Inuit youth might be more comfortable and willing to participate.

Meanwhile, TI continues to work on its second report to the federal government on how the organization can support urban Inuit communities across Canada where Inuit populations continue to grow—in cities such as Edmonton, Halifax and Montreal, for example.

“One of the biggest shifts we had last year was looking at how do we meet the needs of all the Inuit in Ontario, not just Ottawa,” LeBlanc said. “We’re not saying we need to do it. We’re not saying it’s a TI kingdom we’re creating here. We’re talking about empowering Inuit to help Inuit, wherever they are.”

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