'When you move to the city you're completely isolated.'
National organization launched for southern Inuit
Meeka Otway of Edmonton will tell you that living in a southern Canadian city can be tremendously isolating for an Inuk, which is why she welcomes the creation of new organization for urban Inuit.
"When you live in a small community, you have your sisters, your cousins, your aunts, your dad, all ready to help you out at any given moment," she said in a telephone interview from Edmonton.
"When you move to the city, you're completely isolated. Your life changes overnight. People can even go into depression."
Otway should know. She grew up in Clyde River, then lived in Iqaluit before making the move to Edmonton 16 years ago, attracted to the south by the better educational opportunities for her children.
Otway is also vice-president of the Edmonton Inuit Cultural Society. She got involved nearly two years ago, when the still fledgling society was on the verge of collapse.
But now things are looking up, she said, with the beginnings of a new national Inuit organization to support local groups like the EICS and serve the one-fifth of all Canadian Inuit who live in urban centres outside of Inuit Nunaat.
It's not exactly a new group. Tungasuvvingat Inuit, the social, cultural and counseling centre that has been serving Inuit in the Ottawa region since 1987, is simply going national, executive director Morgan Hare said.
A formal announcement from TI and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is expected within the next couple of weeks.
But the process is already beginning, as TI joins with local Inuit organizations to hire youth workers in the five cities – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Montreal and St. John's, Nfld. – that already have independent organizations for Inuit.
The positions are all funded by a Heritage Canada grant.
Like Edmonton, the other urban Inuit groups are generally small and struggling, with little ability to provide programming and support other than mutual self-help – important as that may be.
"TI has chosen to work with us to bring more funding and programs to the urban Inuit in the greater Edmonton area," says the announcement on the website's main page.
"It's awesome" that TI is forming the national group to help with things like traditional feasts, Otway said. Without those feasts, people who move to cities often stop eating traditional foods, she said.
The Edmonton Inuit Cultural Society has recently launched a website at www.edmontoninuit.ca.
The site lists the three programs it offered this winter – Inuktitut classes, a traditional sewing craft group, and a throat-singing workshop – plus two items in the events archive: a Christmas party and participation in the "Capital Ex Aboriginal Showcase Kiyânâw" last July.
Otway and her daughter made sealskin mittens in the sewing group. "We're making sure we have cultural experiences for our kids so they don't lose their identities," she said.
Those experiences are increasingly important as Otway said her kids will likely stay in the south. She tries to make one trip north a year with her children, to attend family functions.
Hare said that as the five independent Inuit urban organizations consolidate their work under the one umbrella, TI will also look at expanding services to other cities – like Toronto – that do not yet have an organized presence for Inuit.
In a presentation to the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada annual general meeting in Iqaluit this spring, TI noted that according to the 2006 Canadian census, about 22 per cent of all Inuit in Canada – 11,107 – now live outside of Inuit Nunaat, a significant jump from 17 per cent in 1996.
"There's no indication that the trend to urbanization is going to stop, or even slow down."
And as the urban, mostly young, Inuit population continues to grow, "so does the need for the supports and services offered by TI," including jobs, training, housing and health care.
TI told Pauktuutit it signed a five-year agreement with the Inuit Relations Secretariat of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to provide $200,000 a year in "basic organizational core funding" for its work with urban Inuit.
TI's plans include:
- setting up an "urban Inuit committee" to establish program priorities and set direction;
- developing an effective communications system for urban Inuit;
- helping urban Inuit get the training and funding they need to improve their organizational abilities; and
- raising awareness.