NORTHERN CONTACT: Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre: Igniting cultural pride

NORTHERN CONTACT: Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre: Igniting cultural pride

This series first appeared in the print edition of the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine.


Sparking interest Ina Zakal shows a child the traditional practice of lighting the oil lamp called a qulliq. The qulliq was important to the survival of Inuit as it provided a source of heat and light. Photo by David Kawai


In a bright yellow room, a dozen energetic kindergarten students play with wooden blocks, draw geometric shapes, and flip through picture books while a pair of teachers circulate around the sunny space, tidying toys and trying to keep a handle on the organized chaos. One floor below, seven preschoolers snack on red peppers and broccoli. A boy in a blue sweatshirt slips away to stare at the fish tank. “Okay, I’ve got six of them in chairs now,” their teacher says. “That’s not bad.”

This could be a mid-morning scene at any daycare or elementary school in the city but for a few key differences: meals here are eaten communally and frequently include raw caribou, Arctic char, or seal, and the children are learning three languages: English, French, and Inuktitut.

The full-day kindergarten and childcare programs that share this converted house on McArthur Avenue in Vanier are among the suite of services offered by the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre (OICC), which also owns the building next door and another one a few blocks away. From women’s healing circles and drop-in baby playtime to book-making workshops and throat-singing lessons, as well as a long list of sports, arts, and recreational activities for youth, the centre is, in the words of executive director Karen Baker-Anderson, “a hub for celebrating Inuit culture.”

Nearly 1,000 Inuit live in Ottawa — one of the largest communities in Canada outside the North — and every year almost half of them come into contact with the OICC. The centre helps people either retain or rediscover their roots and find a new rhythm for their lives in the south. Its “wrap-around services” give families important educational and social support, says Baker-Anderson, who says the best way to keep kids out of trouble is to get them involved in positive, community-based activities.

Established in 2005 as the offshoot of a children’s program run by the counselling and resource agency Tungasuvvingat Inuit, the OICC is also fuelling a new sense of Inuit pride. Lynda Brown, director of youth program services, was born in Iqaluit but grew up in Alberta with an Inuk mother who wanted to assimilate into mainstream Canada. Brown reconnected with her heritage while at university and has watched her three kids flourish at the centre. Her seven-year-old daughter graduated from the kindergarten as a talented throat singer who speaks better Inuktitut than her mom does.

Most of the 100 kids who participate in OICC programs every day were born in the south and will likely never live in Nunavut. Some were adopted by non-Inuk parents. The centre helps them understand where they came from and who they are and gives them the confidence to blend an ancient cultural inheritance with modern, urban influences. When they perform at public schools and at other events in Ottawa, they share that amalgam with the rest of the city. “I can’t wait to see these kids in five, 10, or 15 years,” says Brown. “The world is so open to them.”

Also in this series:

PROFILE: Arctic inspires new Art by Leslie Reid


Renowned for her landscape paintings that evoke emotional responses, Leslie Reid reveals the sublime, fragile nature of the North in her latest series, Mapping Time.


ShoeBOX: a perfect fit for the North


Thanks to an iPad-based tool invented by CHEO physician Dr. Matthew Bromwich, children from Nunavut can skip the plane ride from Iqaluit to Ottawa to have their hearing tested.