'Many Inuit, especially women, will continue moving out into the southern cities'

Urban Inuit suffer with no support, research says


Inuit living in southern Canadian cities need community centres to offer them information and support, says a Japanese researcher .

At the same time, Inuit, no matter where they live, also need more government action on the social and economic problems that affect their communities, says Nobuhiro Kishigami of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, writing in the latest edition of the Etudes Inuit Studies journal.

Urban Inuit now comprise at least 20 per cent of the Inuit population in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

This means as many as 10,000 Inuit live in southern Canada, most in the large urban centres of Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Although the most recent census says 570 Inuit, 235 males and 335 females, live in Montreal, Kishigami says a more realistic figure is at least 800, when the numbers of patients, students, and homeless Inuit are taken into account.

And more Inuit will head south if social conditions in the North do not improve, he predicts.

"As the shortage of jobs, housing, substance abuse, domestic violence, and sexual violence remain unresolved in the North, many Inuit, especially women, will continue moving out into the southern cities from their native villages," Kishigami says in his paper, "Homeless Inuit in Montreal."

To show how these northern problems often ­continue to plague Inuit in Montreal, Kishigami cites the case of a 35-year-old Inuk woman, called Lucy, who married a Québécois man in the North.

Lucy lived in Montreal, Ville Lasalle and Alma for about 13 years with her husband and their two children before becoming homeless after she and her husband divorced over her heavy drinking.

Her former husband was granted custody of the children. Since then, she has been homeless and panhandling downtown, receiving no welfare because she ­doesn't know how to apply for it.

She frequently eats free lunches at the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal and free suppers at various women's shelters such as Chez Doris or the Native Women's Shelter. At night, Lucy tends to sleep in one of the parks.

She can shower four times a week and wash her clothes twice a week at one of the missions run by local churches or at shelters.

She drinks beer every day and sometimes smokes marijuana. She shares and drinks several bottles of beer with her friends at a city park and occasionally drinks heavily until the early morning at a friend's apartment.

"Once she and her friends get drunk, they often have fights with others or yell at each other on the bus or metro, or in the street. Although she herself recognizes that her life is not good, she finds it very difficult to escape from this reality," Kishigami writes.

Based on his research, Kishigami says Montreal Inuit – and particularly the homeless – need a downtown community centre where they can share information and food.

This centre should be federally funded, he suggests, because otherwise it would never be self-sustaining.

The Association of Montreal Inuit tried to operate such a centre in the Montreal suburb of Lachine from 2002 until 2005. Then Makivik Corp. decided to sell the building that housed the ­centre.

Around the same time, the members of St. Paul's Anglican church in Lachine also decided to stop offering space to the association's monthly dinners, held 65 times from 1999 to 2005, because they said cooking equipment had disappeared.

These community suppers were important, Kishigami says, because Inuit living and working around Montreal seldom share food as they would in the North.

As well, family links are weaker. So the lack of these traditional supports makes it even harder for many Inuit to cope.

The estimated 1,000 Inuit who live in Ottawa have access to several Inuit community organizations, but they confront language barriers, racial discrimination and social isolation in the city, say researchers Donna Patrick and Julie-Ann Tomiak in "Language, culture and community among urban Inuit in Ottawa," also published in the recent Etudes Inuit Studies journal.

Inuit in Ottawa also face a lack of affordable housing, which contributes to homelessness.

But Inuit don't even have to live in the South to be urban dwellers and some of the same issues, reflects ­Danish researcher Susanne Dybbroe in her paper, "Is the Arctic really urbanizing?"

Many large northern communities, like Nuuk or Iqaluit, are already urban, Dybbroe says.

These cities display all the physical characteristics of urban centres – a diverse population of more than 1,000 and high population density – as well as the problems and attractions of urban life, she says.

For more information on how to order the Etudes Inuit Studies journal on urban Inuit, go to http://www.fss.ulaval.ca/ etudes-inuit-studies

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