Ottawa centre offers Inuktitut kindergarten

Around the Arctic February 18, 2011 – 9:38 am

“We had to come south for this?” Sue Qitsualik is a family support coordinator at the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre while her daughter Rebecca attends the kindergarten program next door. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

SARAH ROGERS

The Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre at 244 MacArthur Ave in Vanier has been open for five years. Today, the centre offers child care, after-school programs and Inuktitut classes to Inuit families in Ottawa.

Cultural teacher Jane Kigutaq shows students how to spell out the word igluvigaq in Ottawa’s only Inuit kindergarten class. (PHOTO BY SARAH ROGERS)

OTTAWA – From the outside, it’s an unassuming red brick house on 224 MacArthur Ave. in Vanier.

But inside that building, something very special is happening.

The sun spills though the windows across 14 kindergarten students sitting in a circle – squirming, with the wooden floors creaking under all the movement.

“What kind of transportation do Inuit use?” asks their culture teacher, Jane Kigutaq.

A motorcycle, or a snowblower, or a snowman, the students offer.

“What about a snowmobile, sikitu?” asks Kigutaq. This suggestion is followed by a chorus of “Aahhhs,” as if the kids knew it all along.

They might have, but chances are that their experience of Inuit life has been relayed to them through photos and stories told by their parents.

So this new classroom offers these Inuit youngsters a fresh way to experience their culture and language.

These four- and five-year-olds make up the first Inuit kindergarten class in Ontario — or anywhere in southern Canada, for that matter. The kindergarten started up last October.

The families of the children enrolled in the program have moved to Ottawa from Nunavut and other Inuit regions for a number of reasons, but all want their children to know where they came from.

That’s how the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre was born five years ago.

It began as a federally-funded children’s education program, Head Start, called Sivummut, with a focus on Inuit culture.

The organization eventually secured a building, where they now house the Tumiralaat childcare centre, literacy and after-school programs.

Weekend Inuktitut classes are also offered to the estimated Inuit population of 2,000-plus, many of whom are third-generation residents of the capital city.

In 2010, staff and parents lobbied to open the first Inuit kindergarten class in Ottawa, in partnership with the local R.E. Wilson public school.

Karen Baker-Anderson, the OICC’s executive director, says the centre’s parents felt uneasy about the idea of their son or daughter starting school as the only Inuk in the classroom.

“From a parent’s perspective, they’re worried about being in the South and not having that cultural experience,” Baker-Anderson says. “The difference in an urban setting is that children don’t hear Inuktitut at the local store, they don’t see qamutiks parked in the backyard – we have to bring that to them.”

In its core curriculum, the kindergarten class is much like any other in the province. Full-time teacher Beatrice Ocquaye — who is not Inuk — came from the local school down the street and says she now learns a new Inuktitut word every day.

But the classroom is peppered with cultural icons. Children play with qimmiq-pulled qamutiit, dress up in traditional clothes, build igloos in their schoolyard and learn Inuktitut in Kigutaq’s cultural circle.

Although the majority of the children speak Inuktitut at home, parents appreciate the extra support.

Most importantly, says Baker-Anderson, by the time children leave the program, they have “an amazing sense of who they are.”

Sue Qitsualik, a family support coordinator at the OICC and also mother to one of the centre’s kindergarten students, dreams of an entire Inuit school in Ottawa one day.

“I want her to keep practicing her Inuktitut as long as possible,” she says of daughter Rebecca.

Qitsualik moved her four children from Yellowknife to Ottawa in 2009 — a leap of faith that she says has paid off, thanks to the support and programs offered through the OICC.

Qitsualik can see the irony, too – that if she had stayed in Yellowknife, her daughter wouldn’t even have access to Inuktitut-language education.

“We had to come south for this?” she laughs. “Rebecca wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.”