Reepa Evic-Carleton knows a thing or two about the difficulties of adjusting not only to a new community, but a new way of life.
Evic-Carleton, 58, was born in an outpost camp in the Cumberland Sound of Nunavut and moved to the community of Pangnirtung at the age of five. She grew up there, eventually working as a housing manager and community social worker prior to arriving in Ottawa in 1989.
By her own estimation, she went through about two years of culture shock after moving to “the South.”
Now, as a program coordinator and counsellor with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre, she works every day to make that transition easier for others.
The OICC, located at 224 and 230 McArthur Ave. (early years program) and at 76 Queen St. (youth centre) in Vanier, offers a wide variety of programs to get children off on the right foot while remaining grounded in their culture.
The agency’s Sivummut Head Start program, for Inuit children 18 months to six years old, provides education in language and culture while also focusing on things like school readiness and health promotion, while the kindergarten program integrates Inuit culture with the province’s curriculum. There is also a year-round child care centre.
Older youths have access to after school and drop-in programs, as well as support for those dealing with mental health or substance abuse problems, while parenting programs provide tools and support for raising proud, confident Inuit children.
“It’s a really a privilege to work with the people that we work with and be grounded in our principles and values as Inuit, because it’s a giving culture, it’s a sharing culture, and it’s a sense of community that maybe many people in the South don’t have,” Evic-Carleton says.
“Many people can get lonely in a big, big place with many people around.”
A slower pace of life, more open space, fewer rules and laws about how the land can be used and where — when it all changes at once, it can be jarring. Add in the legacy of colonization and forced relocation, and there can be many challenges to tackle.
“When I went away from the North in 1989, I began to really think about who I am and the values, principles and values I grew up with, and I honestly can tell you I took my culture for granted when I lived up there,” Evic-Carleton says.
“When I moved here, I really started digging and learning and gaining back a lot of things we lost as Inuit due to colonization.
“To have an agency that believes in the Inuit values, in language being carried away from home … there’s a lot of good things we do here, a lot of good programming and events that happen and it’s a close-knit community in many ways,” she adds.
“It’s wonderful to be able to speak your language and be among other Inuit every day.”
Just how close-knit is the Inuit community in Ottawa? Evic-Carleton and fellow program coordinator Trudy Metcalfe-Coe, 52, became friends when their daughters took part in the same Head Start program. Now their girls are themselves in their early 20s and are working together in the OICC’s summer program.
Not only is the community tight-knit, it’s growing fairly rapidly. Metcalfe-Coe estimates Ottawa’s Inuit population is currently around 3,500. When she arrived in just before 1990, it was less than 500.
Keeping up with that ever-expanding population is one of the OICC’s most important tasks.
“We know most of our community, “Metcalfe-Coe explains. “If we know of somebody who is out there and needs something, we can get a hold of them through the OICC.”
That can mean providing any number of support services and helping people find their way. Metcalfe-Coe recalls one woman who was going through a hard time telling her and Evic-Carleton that “you are the key to my lock.”
“We’re just trying to remind people it’s not us … it’s you. We’re standing with you,” she explains. “The OICC enables us to do that.
“It gives us the ability and the freedom to do what it is that we love to do and want to do and need to do to make our community a stronger community … and have kids grow up proud of who they are.”