Inuit are the least urbanized of aboriginal groups – less than 20 percent live in an urban centre – more are now moving to cities, a modern migration that seems inevitable and, some would say, even necessary.
WHEN YOU CONSIDER WHERE RHODA INNUKSUK was born, it seems remarkable that she now lives in a three-bedroom brick house on a leafy street in suburban Ottawa, where her 12-year-old adopted son and his friends are currently holed up in the living room playing Rock Band. A selection of classic-rock staples howls through the kitchen as Innuksuk prepares a pot of coffee. “Forgive the mess,” she says, referring to the boxes piled by the door. She has been sorting through winter clothes in preparation for a trip to Qaiqsut, an ancient hunting camp near Igloolik, Nunavut, where she was born in a tent while her father was out walrus hunting. That was in 1952, sometime in August – her exact birth date is unknown.
Innuksuk is now 58. She has a gravelly laugh and wears her hair pulled back in a heavy ponytail that reaches the middle of her back. This trip to Qaiqsut will be her first return to her birthplace. She’s spent more of her life in the suburbs than in hunting camps, having lived in Ottawa for 40 years. She arrived when she was 18 to take a few courses at Algonquin College, and then never really left. “Life happened,” she says wistfully. Innuksuk married, had kids, divorced, and all the while was an active lobbyist on behalf of Inuit both north and south, even back when she was one of the few living in the capital. “We’re talking about a time before the land claims settlement, before any Inuit groups existed” she says. As the negotiations for a new Northern territory launched, so did organizations like Inuit Tapirisat of Kanatami (ITK), the country’s first national Inuit political group, which set up shop in Ottawa. “Of course, that came with Inuit staff and they brought their families,” recalls Innuksuk. “And at that time I felt it was very important to establish an Inuit community here.” She became ITK’s first female president and headed various national committees, always working to give Inuit, particularly youth, a leg up in the city.
Since then, tailored services have grown alongside Ottawa’s Inuit population, now the largest outside the North. The unofficial number is around 1,500 – twice what it was in 2006. Beyond Ottawa, Inuit also have a strong showing in other Northern gateway cities: Edmonton, Winnipeg and Montreal. And though they are the least urbanized of aboriginal groups – less than 20 percent live in an urban centre – more Inuit are now moving to cities, a modern migration that seems inevitable and, some would say, even necessary.
OTTAWA IS A NATURAL LANDING point for Nunavummuit, just a three-hour flight from Iqaluit, and where Baffin Island residents have long come for medical care or other urban services. Inuit are most visible in Vanier, a neighbourhood on the eastern edge of the city with a reputation for drug peddling and prostitution. For good or ill, most of the city’s Inuit services are located here. There’s a community centre, a youth and family centre, an Anglican Church that holds Inuktitut services once a month, and a few blocks south, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre (OICC), an impressive, amply staffed organization offering childcare, youth services and literacy and language programming. The long-running Tungasuvvingat Inuit association also dispenses a broad range of family, employment and health services, while the Inuit Non-Profit Housing Corporation rents out 63 subsidized units, mostly in Vanier. Often, getting a house in Ottawa is cheaper and faster than in Arctic communities, where it can take years to climb a waiting list. Whereas a one-bedroom in Iqaluit is $2,100 a month, a low-rent three-bedroom house in Vanier goes for $1,100.
As with First Nations, urban Inuit are subject to the usual stereotypes that they are lazy and poor, prone to addictions and domestic violence. And these problems do exist, perhaps more vividly in the city where trouble can be easier to find. Downtown, there’s a reliable contingent of Inuit, usually men, who pass the day looking for booze or smoking cigarettes in front of the Salvation Army. Homelessness is still prevalent; stigmas still prevail. In Montreal earlier this year, a proposed residence for Nunavik medical patients drew fire from locals worried about constant partying and trouble in their neighbourhood.
The struggles of urban Inuit penetrate the home life as well. “There’s an inordinate number of Inuit youth involved with Children’s Aid Society,” says Lynda Brown, a program coordinator at OICC. Though, in some instances she says kids have been confiscated because of cultural misunderstandings. Sleeping with a newborn, for example, is not condoned in Canada, but “in Inuit homes, it’s the norm,” Brown says, adding with a laugh, “some case-workers used to think babies’ spine would be ruined by being in an amauti!” To ease some of these cultural misapprehensions, Brown and other Inuit representatives have started working with CAS, educating about Inuit culture and parenting styles, while also coaching parents on how to raise kids in the city. “If you come from a small community where it’s safe to let your kid run around by themselves, you might think it’s okay to let them loose in Vanier Park,” she says. “And that’s a good way to have CAS knocking on your door.”
Despite the lingering social problems, Brown says the portrait of urban Inuit is changing. “There are fewer single parents, less high-risk families,” she says. “The majority of our kids are from healthy two-parent homes, which is a big change from a decade ago.” Brown recalls when she first moved to Ottawa 12 years ago, the community was “rougher, with more poverty, unemployment, social issues and negative stereotyping,” reflecting a demographic shift among those flocking to the city today. They are younger and savvier, and their reasons for moving are different.
Previously, Inuit may have fallen into southern circumstances, either because they’ve followed family members, fled bad circumstances, or simply got stuck after coming down for medical treatment. But increasingly, people are drawn to urban centres for the promise of a better life, whether for jobs, cheaper housing or higher quality health care. And as post-secondary education becomes more of a priority in the maturing territory, there will be a greater pull south for young Inuit, raising logical worries about cultural dilution and loss of language, especially among a new generation of Inuit that are being born in the south. With these kids in mind, the OICC launched the Sivummut Head Start Program, a sort of cultural preschool open to Inuit up to age six. Here they learn Inuktitut words, play with pretend ulus, and mimic throat singing and drum dancing. For break, they head outside to the fairly standard-style playground, which is bordered by pine trees and sprawling elms, and fenced off from the city traffic.
EVA KIGUTAQ IS A 33-year-old single mom who lives in a subsidized three-bedroom house on Lallemand Street. The house is narrow and ragged, with weathered white-siding and cramped rooms that Kigutaq keeps tidy and sparsely furnished. Having this place means she can afford to live in Ottawa while supporting three kids and her mother. She grew up in Arctic Bay and nearby Nanisivik, a once-thriving mining town. Her first urban experience couldn’t have been more jolting. “I went from Nanisivik to downtown Toronto,” she recalls. “It was a huge culture shock. I couldn’t get over the traffic, the buildings. People didn’t even smile when they walked past.” Kigutaq now laughs at her urban inexperience. She’s since lived in other parts of Ontario, with stints back in Arctic Bay, before moving to Ottawa permanently 11 years ago. “I was trying to leave a difficult relationship,” she says. She chose Ottawa because her mom and aunt were already there. More importantly, she’d always vowed to have her kids educated in the south. Nunavut schools have a reputation for being understaffed, underfunded and poorly run, which may help explain why the territory has the worst high-school graduation rate in the country. Kigutaq still remembers how far behind she felt when she first sat in a southern classroom, barely able to keep up in reading and math.
Apart from a few pangs of homesickness – like right now in late May “a teeny part” of her wishes she was in Arctic Bay for the start of camping season – Ottawa appeals to her. It’s the size and particularly the proximity it affords her to other Inuit, mainly through her job as manager of the Family Resources Centre. “I like it here,” Kigutaq says. “I’m happy with my little house and family, and I still get to be with Inuit.”
It is common to hear Inuit say they crave the company of other Inuit, or that maintaining strong cultural ties is a crucial part of how they managed the transition into city life. Like Kigutaq, 32-year-old Anna Fowler has lived in various southern cities from a young age, yet has found Ottawa an easy place to be Inuit. Fowler – tall and striking with long dark hair – works for the federal Office of Inuit Health, which keeps her regularly travelling to Arctic communities and immersed in Inuit affairs. “If I didn’t have this job I wouldn’t still be in Ottawa,” she says. Fowler grew up in the Apex suburb of Iqaluit. She attended private school in Peterborough, Ontario when she was 12 and later went to university in Halifax, where she lived for seven years. Though Halifax is renowned for its small-town friendliness, Fowler found it difficult because there were no Inuit. In Ottawa, on the other hand, she attends monthly community feasts, she sees Inuit friends and gets to Iqaluit at least twice a year. She keeps hunks of vacuum-packed caribou in her freezer. Her mantle is lined with miniature soapstone carvings and other traditional paraphernalia, like snow goggles and weathered ulus. She speaks fluent Inuktitut.
Fowler is part of that newer breed of young Inuit – urban savvy and world-wise because they’ve grown up travelling or have gone south for school. There is a comfort level with city life, yet a deep attachment to their Inuit roots.
In Montreal, for example – where the Inuit population is also high and rising, but dismally served – there’s a small convergence of young Inuit who are involved in creative pursuits that require the sensibility and networking of an urban centre, but are truly Inuit flavoured. There’s Geronimo Inutiq, aka “DJ Geronimo” or “Mad Eskimo,” a 31-year-old musician who’s made a bit of a name for himself in Montreal’s aboriginal music scene for his electronic songs that incorporate skin-drum beats and historical audio recordings. Though he was raised in Iqaluit, his musical tinkering started in Quebec City, where he lived with his dad and attended high school. He acknowledges “a big part of what I’m doing and where I am now is because of my education and the artistic sensibilities I was exposed to.” Inutiq’s mother is Inuk from Clyde River; his father is Quebecois and Metis, who was also an artist of some note.
When Inutiq moved to Montreal, he fell in with a rap group, got a laptop and digital-music software and started writing songs. “Living here allows me an experience I couldn’t get anywhere else,” he says. “I can draw from my Northern heritage and explore concepts and evolve in ways I couldn’t have if I had stayed in the North.” But still, eking out a living in Montreal for Inutiq has been a struggle. He’s been couch surfing since the fall, picking up shifts where he can at APTN, where he does some writing and shooting, performing music only part time. At least once a year, he goes back home to Iqaluit, where he “breathes differently.” “Being in nature is grounding, peaceful and profound in a way city life can’t compare,” he says. “But being in concentrated zones of urbanization allows an advantage for networking and infrastructure. That’s why I’m a travelling man.”
EVEN AS A KID, Bill Nasogaluak was wise to the charms of a world outside Tuk Island, where he grew up without plumbing and electricity, at the tail end of an era when people still travelled by dog team. He had boyhood fantasies about living in New York City, and begged his father to let him go to school in Inuvik, the “big city” of the region. An early career in electronics took him to Alberta and all over the country, and today the 57-year-old Inuvialuit artist rents a three-bedroom house in Toronto – a very un-Inuit place. (The 2006 census counted 320 Inuit residents.)
Walking along Danforth Ave., the main artery of Toronto’s east end, Nasogaluak points out his neighbourhood watering hole, his breakfast place, where he rents DVDs. Though he is wooed by the energy and amenities of the big city, Nasogaluak moved to Toronto solely for his career. “If you’re an aspiring movie star, then the place you have to go is Hollywood,” he says. “As an artist, I knew I had to come to Toronto.” It took several months before Nasogaluak got the attention of renowned art dealer Harold Seidelman, considered an Inuit-art authority and well-connected to international collectors. Nasogaluak carves exclusively for Seidelman – big, brooding soapstone sculptures depicting Inuit myths and contemporary issues – out of a detached garage in his backyard. “I haven’t done a polar bear in months,” he says, referring to his freedom to make darker, more sophisticated pieces that appeal to high-end buyers, rather than the pot-boiler souvenir art that characterizes the Northern market.
When he lived in Yellowknife just before coming to Toronto almost five years ago, Nasogaluak worked in a shared studio with a bunch of other artists. The arrangement often resulted in more ribbing and banter than productivity. So living in Toronto, oddly, has fostered a new kind of focus and perspective. “It’s funny, I live in a big city and what I really enjoy is the quietness, my aloneness,” he says. “It’s really helped me nurture my art career; I’m not interrupted at my most productive times.” Though the anonymity of Toronto has been good for his career, Nasogaluak admits he can get lonely and longs for that “Northern connection.” That’s when he jumps on a plane to Tuk, where he can go goose hunting with his brothers.
Going home now imparts a broader perspective, one that comes with having been away, but also having lived through a few eras. Like Rhoda Innuksuk, Nasogaluak has known a more ancient time, and he worries about this modern one and what it means for today’s Inuit who are caught in between. “If they are dropped off in the south, they’re not gonna make it; if they’re dropped off on the land, they’re not going to make it,” he says. “So we have a generation now that is hopelessly lost.” Nasogaluak pins any hope for the future of his people on education, the quality of which he doesn’t think the North can provide. Going south, he says, is a necessity for young Inuit. “They need to know the language of both societies.”
BACK AT INNUKSUK’S HOUSE, the boys are still clacking and banging along to Bon Jovi, while Innuksuk pulls a loaf of raison bread from the microwave, and takes a quick phone call in Inuktitut. She admits she often has to “think really hard for a word,” though she is clearly fluent. Musing about her southern migration, Innuksuk says it all started when she left for residential school in Churchill, Manitoba as a young girl. Little did she know she would continue southward, never again to live in Igloolik. Even when she visits now, she privately wonders why she doesn’t live there. “Every time I get off the plane and see all those familiar faces, of course that goes through my mind,” she says. “But then I come home and I’m so happy to sleep in my own bed. My life is here.”
I ask how she has kept her “Inuitness” intact having lived most of her life in Ottawa. She rhymes off all the ways: keeping active in Inuit affairs through her various advisory board roles, and visiting Igloolik at least once a year. Every month she attends the city’s community feast, lugging over a big pot of caribou stew. Sometimes she checks on Inuit patients at the hospital when they’ve been flown down for medical care, even if she doesn’t know them. But mostly, she says, it is “by just being an Inuk.”