Chiefs attempt to maintain connection with Indigenous people moving to urban areas

Some local chiefs are concerned about the exodus of Aboriginal people from the reserve to the city and are taking steps to keep their members in contact with the community.

The Indigenous population in the Ottawa-Gatineau region grew by 22 per cent from 2016 to 2021 and now numbers approximately 46,565 people, according to recently released census data.

Lack of housing, along with the lure of jobs and a post-secondary education are some of the most common reasons Indigenous people move to urban areas, chiefs say.

Abram Benedict, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on the St. Lawrence River, said people who leave to work or study don’t get far and he tries to help them stay connected to the community.

“We want our members to be served by us, we also want the family connection for all our members,” Benoît said.

Every community struggles with this.– Grand Chief Abram Benedict, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne

He said his community has a lot of infrastructure and can offer many services, but the lack of housing is driving people away.

« Every community struggles with this. There hasn’t been a community leader across the country that I’ve spoken to who tells me that we have enough homes for all of our members. » he added.

Akwasasne is currently planning to increase its housing, but Benedict said it was difficult to keep up with demand.

« We continue to build as many houses as possible, with the resources we have, and access to land is also a challenge for us. »

Creation of an urban reserve

Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, said the lack of space and jobs on her reserve prompted leaders to plan an urban reserve in Ottawa.

“Pikwakanagan is a very small reserve. … We cannot reasonably house and employ all of our members, who number over 3,000,” Jocko said.

Mayor Jim Watson spoke about the creation of the urban reserve in his State of the City address in January 2022, confirming that discussions were underway with « development partners » to find a location in the city of Ottawa.

The plan is still under development, Jocko said.

“Rather than our people moving towards us, we are moving towards them,” she said.

Wendy Jocko grew up off the reserve, so it’s no surprise to her to hear that others are moving, but she hopes to bring her community closer together with new housing initiatives and employment opportunities. (Submitted by Wendy Jocko)

Stay connected at home

At a time when more and more people are moving to cities, Jennifer Tenasco hopes to do the opposite.

Tenasco grew up in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg but moved to Ottawa early in his life. Since leaving when she was eight, Tenasco says she returns to the reservation every weekend.

Tenasco at a powwow.
Jennifer Tenasco frequently drives home to the reservation or other communities to participate in powwows and hoop dancing. (Submitted by Jennifer Tenasco)

Ottawa gave him a good opportunity to finish his bachelor’s degree and experience life off reserve, but he misses his family and his culture. Tenasco recently started making birch baskets and she has to go home to collect the materials.

« Here [the birch is] rot and they bubble, but back home I can pick up and harvest my birch easily, so that’s one aspect that’s culturally different,” Tenasco said.

Taking advantage of your time at home also means being able to reconnect with your language, which is difficult to learn in Ottawa.

« Our language is lost. My grandmother is one of the last fluent Algonquin speakers. So to come home and talk to her, and [I can] try to learn the language,” Tenasco said.


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