Canada’s urban Inuit unite at Ottawa gathering
Federal government’s Urban Aboriginal Strategy fails Inuit, delegates say
Whether they’ve lived outside the Inuit homeland for just a few months or for many decades, Canada’s urban Inuit agree on at least one point: they’ve been too quiet for too long and it’s time to get organized.
“We’re certainly not getting our needs met,” Jason LeBlanc, executive director of the Ottawa-based Tungasuvvingat Inuit organization, said Nov. 5 at the start of a national meeting of urban Inuit in Ottawa.
Given how fast Canada’s urban and southern-based Inuit population is exploding, those needs — in education, social services, justice, culture, language and childcare — are growing just as quickly.
LeBlanc said the number of Inuit living in large Canadian cities now exceeds 10,000, and that if you add the number of Inuit who live in smaller centres, close to 30 per cent of all Inuit in Canada may now live outside Inuit Nunangat.
Donat Savoie, an anthropologist and retired federal civil servant who works as a consultant for Makivik Corp. on homelessness among Inuit in Montreal, presented numbers that show 15,990 Inuit lived outside the Inuit homeland in 2011.
That’s 26.9 per cent, more than one in four Canadian Inuit. Only Nunavut, with 45.5 per cent of the Inuit population, accounts for more people.
But the quantity and quality of Inuit-specific services available to those urban Inuit varies wildly from city to city.
In Ottawa, Inuit can gain access to a variety of programs run by organizations like TI, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre and the Mamisarvik healing centre.
But in other cities, such as Toronto, there’s little or no Inuit programming.
Peter Itinnuar, who works for the Ontario government’s native affairs department in Toronto, said there are no programs directed towards Inuit in that city.
About eight million people live in the GTA, the name given to the vast megalopolis that stretches from Oshawa to Hamilton. That means Inuit are virtually invisible, Itinnuar said.
“It’s very rare for me to run into another Inuk on Bloor Street. But there are 1,300 of us in Toronto,” he said.
To fix that, he and other Inuit in the city, including Rob Lackie, originally from Nunatsiavut, and Darryl Day, originally from the western Arctic, along with Mikka Komaksiutiksak, have started a group called Inuit of Toronto Urban Katimavik.
Right now, they meet in space borrowed from the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto, but Inuit in Toronto now need access to Inuit housing services, Inuit family support services and Inuit employment services, Itinnuar said.
The new group organized a Christmas dinner for Toronto Inuit last year, and are seeking funding this year to expand their activities, Itinnuar said.
That’s just one example of how urban Inuit are taking matters into their own hands.
To harness that energy, TI organized this week’s conference to give urban Inuit everywhere a forum to share ideas and experiences and work towards building a national network.
That followed engagement sessions this past summer with Inuit communities in Ottawa, St. John’s, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton.
“We’re here, not to have a debate, but to capture as many ideas as we can,” said Mathieu Courchene, the meeting’s facilitator.
And as soon as organizers opened up the meeting for questions and comments from the floor, one big idea emerged: the federal government’s reorganized Urban Aboriginal Strategy is failing Inuit.
That program has existed in one form or another since 1997, when the federal government created it to respond to a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
But after a restructuring in 2014, the program has left urban Inuit in the lurch, many delegates said.
That’s because, since 2014, the federal government has used the National Association of Friendship Centres, or NAFC — a First Nations-dominated entity — to deliver the money that flows through the Urban Aboriginal Strategy.
There’s actually two pots. One is called “Urban Partnerships” and is worth $30 million in funding over two years for specific projects aimed at benefitting urban Aboriginal people and to increase their participation in the economy.
The other, worth $23 million over two years, is called “Community Capacity Support.”
But many urban Inuit groups find it difficult to deal with the NAFC. They’ve either lost funding, or seen their Inuit-specific applications denied.
“We have been pushed outside of the process. There’s something very wrong with the system,” said Tina Pisuktie of Montreal.
Pisuktie works with the Chez Doris women’s shelter in Montreal and at the Native Friendship Center of Montreal, which is not affiliated with the provincial association.
Donat Savoie, who works with Pisuktie and Annie Kelly on social issues, said he believes the new system puts board members sitting on the Quebec wing of the NFAC into a conflict of interest.
He said that’s because the NFAC’s relationship with Ottawa gives those board members access to inside funding information that is not available to Inuit applicants.
Karen Baker-Anderson of the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre said her organization received “zero dollars” and that all available urban Aboriginal money now appears to go to the friendship centres.
“It sets up a dynamic in the community where the Inuit are waiting for the scraps to fall off the table of the friendship centres,” Baker-Anderson said.
The meeting continues through Nov. 6 at the Best Western Plus Victoria Park Suites Hotel on O’Connor St. in Ottawa.
Participants are expected to split into small groups for most of the day and then gather for a plenary session after 3:30 p.m.
They plan a second national meeting for March 2016.