It’s been seven months since Janet Kanayok left her home community of Ulukhaktok to move down south to Winnipeg.
The transition hasn’t been easy.
Her community of nearly 400 in the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories is a far cry from the Winnipeg’s population of 753,000.
Kanayok calls the move a “culture shock.”
“It’s been great but it’s been hard. Even though it’s Canada it is very different from our little town,” she told APTN News.
“We weren’t used to all the traffic, the heat in the summer and the bugs that came with it.”
(The Tunngasugit centre is one of two resources places for Inuit in Winnipeg. Photo: Brittany Hobson)
Kanayok, like many other Inuit, left home to access better health and education services for her family.
Her two youngest daughters have to see specialists – one for a hearing disability and the other for cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
To access medical services, the family would fly to Inuvik to visit the only hospital in the region, or relied on the medication being flown into Ulukhaktok.
The final straw came when her daughter’s anti-seizure medication wasn’t able to be flown into the community.
Kanayok’s daughter had a seizure and she had to be medivacked out.
But the decision to move came with consequences and many what ifs.
“My biggest hesitation was leaving my family. We’re pretty close knit. I have my grandchildren, my parents, my siblings, all my nieces and nephews,” said Kanayok.
“I was worried about not being able to find work. Worried about my kids adapting to a whole new life here.”
Once they arrived in the city those concerns quickly become a reality.
Kanayok was privileged in some ways. Her partner is originally from Winnipeg and the couple were able to rely on friends to help them transition.
She eventually was hired by the Manitoba Inuit Association – one of two organizations in Winnipeg working with Inuit.
The association says there is a lack of information provided to Inuit who move.
“A lot of people are not sure where to go for help. There’s really no handbook or anything about moving down to the south from the north,” said Zeann Manernaluk, who works for the Manitoba Inuit Association.
(Janet and her mother Margaret Kanayok. Photo courtesy Janet Kanayok.)
Manernaluk moved to the city 16 years ago from her home community of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
Winnipeg is the medical services hub for the Kivalliq region in Nunavut, which is home to the communities of Arviat, Baker Lake, Chesterfield Inlet, Coral Harbour, Naujaat, Rankin Inlet and Whale Cove.
“When I first came down there were Inuit down here but there was no specific programming, schools or drop in centres,” said Manernaluk.
“I did lose a lot of my Inuit heritage in the first couple of years of being here.”
It’s estimated that thousands of Inuit travel to Manitoba throughout the year.
There are just over 600 Inuit who make the province home, according to Statistics Canada data from 2016.
However, there is little data showing how many of those live in Winnipeg. Numbers from the city say Inuit make up 2 per cent of the population.
Grassroots organizations believe the majority of Inuit live in the city because its where they often have to go to access services.
Manernaluk says a lack of housing in Nunavut plays a big role in why Inuit move to the city.
“They think that maybe their life will be better here. [They] can find more opportunities because it’s a bigger city,” she said.
However, unfortunately, with a bigger city comes bigger barriers like navigating the systems to find affordable housing, social assistance or mental health resources.
A group of Inuit saw the need for an Inuit-specific resource centre in the city and decided to create Tunngasugit, which means ‘welcome’ in Inuktitut.
“One thing that people don’t understand is that our culture is very different, our language is very different, our way of life is very different so it makes it really hard for an Inuk to come here and go to a program or resource centre that is not specific to who they are,” said Nikki Komaksiutiksak, acting executive director of the resource centre.
“They’re being introduced to a different way of life like smudging, for example.”
(Country Food was supplied by Tunngasugit. The organization tries to offer country food at least once a month)
Because the Inuit population is small in Winnipeg compared to other cities like Ottawa or Montreal, services such as child welfare are lumped in with Metis or First Nation services.
Tunngasugit saw the need to employ an Inuk outreach worker who would help Inuit navigate the various systems.
The centre opened last May and they see anywhere from 100 to 200 Inuit a month.
They run a drop-in centre two times a week and are open six days a week by appointment with an outreach worker.
“We find that every week we’re open a new Inuk comes in through the doors that had been living here for several months or several years,” said Komaksiutiksak.
Part of the group’s services include facilitating ways to hold onto connections to home.
This is done with weekly sewing classes, ulu-making and throat-singing, and maybe, most importantly, access to country foods like caribou and seal.
The centre also offers a brief reprieve for Inuit living on the streets.
Komaksiutiksak estimates there are around 20 people who are homeless, caught up in a bureaucratic system.
As more Inuit move to Winnipeg both Komaksiutiksak and Manernaluk say more investments are needed otherwise these people will also fall through the cracks.