Ottawa org building national urban Inuit strategy
“We’re talking literally thousands of Inuit in a population of only 60-odd thousand”
OTTAWA — Jason LeBlanc didn’t know what he’d find when he toured five Canadian cities looking for Inuit who live there and agencies who serve them. He found good news and bad.
Edmonton had recently revived its Inuit organization and St. John’s was in the process of trying to incorporate theirs. Organizations in Winnipeg and Montreal were both vibrant and looking at ways to expand and diversify.
But Toronto? That was another story, LeBlanc said. While statistics show Canada’s largest city has at least 1,385 Inuit residents, there are virtually no Inuit specific organizations, or even any Inuit services within Aboriginal agencies.
“It seemed almost bordering on hopelessness, to be honest,” said LeBlanc, executive director of Tungasuvvingat Inuit, an Ottawa-based agency which runs numerous programs for Inuit in the nation’s capital.
“There were Inuit who’d lived there for 30-plus years, who’d raised kids and grandkids there and were saying there’s nothing here for us. There’s over 60 Aboriginal providers and not one of them is doing any Inuit-specific stuff.”
At the start of the Toronto visit, in a space donated by a local legal aid group, only five or six participants showed up, mostly people TI had tracked down through social media.
When asked how many Inuit they thought lived in Toronto, they guessed a couple hundred, tops. When told it was well over a thousand, they were surprised, LeBlanc said, and dismayed that they’d never organized any cultural gatherings.
At a follow-up meeting several weeks later, they held a pot luck feast and about 30 people showed up, keen to keep the momentum going, he said. It’s a start.
The start of a strategy to get urban Inuit participating in the local urban economy, LeBlanc said.
And though Inuit often come south to escape the North, LeBlanc is hoping to bring them back into the fold, to reinvigorate pride in culture, to support their northern neighbours and maybe even be a source of strength within Inuit Nunangat.
“We want to start to shift that view, seeing all the great capacity in these cities, all the talent, the significant population base,” LeBlanc said. “We’re talking literally thousands of Inuit in a population of only 60-odd thousand.”
Tungasuvvingat Inuit secured just under $800,000 in grant money last year through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to do a series of consultations in an effort to shore up existing urban Inuit groups and organize grassroots movements in places where there are none.
Inuit groups, including those in Montreal and Ottawa, have long complained that federal money earmarked for “Aboriginal” programs in Canada gets largely funnelled into well-organized First Nations groups, while Inuit-specific efforts remain underfunded.
So TI is hoping to build an information database on urban Inuit and fortify a network of Inuit service agencies to turn that imbalance around.
Inuit in St. John’s, for example, have been operating out of the local Native Friendship Centre, but in order to access Inuit-specific money from the Nunatsiavut Government, they need to incorporate their own body and offer their own programs.
TI is focusing efforts on cities which have the largest Inuit populations, according to 2011 numbers from Statistics Canada: Edmonton —1,480, Winnipeg — 420, Toronto— 1,385, Montreal — 1,535 and St. John’s — 1,440.
Those numbers are likely too low, he said, considering the 2011 population figure StatsCan offered for Ottawa-Gatineau was 1,445 and it’s actually closer to 2,500.
LeBlanc is now organizing a national gathering in Ottawa, Nov. 5 to Nov. 6, where five Inuit representatives from each city will gather to share ideas, learn from each other and help to grow a network of urban Inuit from Alberta to Newfoundland.
“It’s an opportunity in November for local groups to get together for peer learning and peer sharing. What are you doing in this city? What are you doing in that city. Oh, we could be doing that,” LeBlanc said. “So we want to continue to build that capacity.”
LeBlanc said he’ll then go back to those cities over the winter to continue offering advice on structure, governance, funding proposals and so forth and will then hold a second national gathering in Ottawa in March 2016.
While each city had its own unique needs and strengths, some common themes emerged, LeBlanc said:
• justice issues such as lack of translation services and over-representation of Inuit in the justice system;
• child welfare and a lack of family services for Inuit families;
• lack of housing services and Inuit homelessness;
• healthcare service gaps such as primary healthcare in Inuktitut and preventative care; and,
• barriers to employment including work experience, training, language, childcare and criminal record pardons.