Ottawa's Indigenous families favour culturally specific programs over other services, according to the city, but existing organizations can't keep up with demand.

The city is researching what regions of Ottawa have the greatest need for early years centres and found a dearth of services that cater to the specific needs of Indigenous families.

"The demands for both childcare and early years services that are culturally appropriate far exceed what is available in the system right now," said Clara Freire, the manager of partner and stakeholder initiatives for the city.

Initial feedback from Indigenous groups revealed many of their clients choose not to go to general centres.

Indigenous centres offer cultural programming

Ooloosie Taukie, an Inuk mother of four, said she was afraid to take her children to a mainstream centre. 

"A lot of southerners don't understand our culture, our identity and what we specifically want for our children in the first years of their lives," Taukie said.

'It's the complete opposite of what happened in residential school.' - Karen Baker, executive director of the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre

She was very grateful to find the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre, she said. Aspects of their programs involve the preservation of the Inuktitut language, something mainstream programs don't provide.

The program also focuses on the child's sense of belonging and cultural pride.

"It's the complete opposite of what happened in residential school," said Karen Baker, the executive director.

"They eat traditional food once per week, we have elders in the classroom, we talk about the Inuit values."

Demand difficult to track 

Baker said the demand for the Inuit centre's services is huge, but the waiting list is long and gives priority to families determined to need the services most.

"It kills us when we have to say 'I'm sorry we don't have a spot,'" she said. "Because then they don't get that cultural experience."

The city's research is part of a provincial initiative to better distribute cultural programs. The hope is to make the centres more available and convenient for people who are unable to access current services, but it is proving a challenge. 

Attempts to track the need for services fell somewhat flat and the mapping was deemed incomplete. It was based on demographic information from the National Household Survey which underrepresents Indigenous people, according to the city's advisory groups.

Several local Indigenous organizations, including the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre, plan to apply for new provincial grants to make their specialized service more available.

It's not clear when provincial dollars will be funnelled into the programs, but the Ministry of Education hopes to have proposals approved by 2018.