5 things to know about Ottawa's aboriginal community

The City of Ottawa often refers to the capital region's aboriginal community as one of the fastest-growing in the city, and the available numbers back up those claims.

It's growing. Fast.

The city of Ottawa often refers to the capital region's aboriginal community as one of the fastest-growing in the city, and the available numbers back up those claims.

About 40,000 people who identify themselves as aboriginal in ancestry live in Ottawa, according to Ian Cross, the manager of the city's planning and forecasting department.

In 2006, that number was just over 29,000, and in 2001 it was about 21,000.

Catch "Capital Indians" Saturday at 7 p.m., an hour-long documentary from the CBC's Waubgeshig Rice exploring the lives of urban aboriginal people in the capital.

The data at hand can also be confusing, however, as in addition to tracking aboriginal ancestry, Statistics Canada also tracks what it calls the Aboriginal identity population: that is, people who identify specificially as a North American Indian, Metis or Inuit. So while 2006 Census data list the number of people identify themselves as aboriginal in ancestry at 26,000, the aboriginal identity population is less than 13,000.

But Cross and many people who work with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people across the country say even the higher numbers likely underestimate the true numbers, as many aboriginal people living in cities either don't self-identify to census officials or cannot be reached to take the census.

Cross said while the numbers are likely higher, there isn't an easy way to estimate how much higher.

Its support is inconsistent

People who work in the community have been watching the steady growth in population for the last decade, but say since cuts in programs in the early nineties, government-funded support hasn't followed suit.

"The funding hasn't followed the figures," said Marc Maracle, the co-chair of the local Urban Aboriginal Coalition.

Maracle said a common misconception of people outside the community is that Indian and Northern Affairs continues to play an active role in the lives of aboriginal people after they leave the reserves and enter the city. But Maracle and others say Indian Affiars plays no role for the urban arrival, leaving any support to fall to the city and community.

Allison Fisher, the director of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, say municipalities have been traditionally slow to pick up the ball.

"You would think the city would try and focus on a coherant plan, but often there is no plan," said Fisher, who said many people arrive from the reserves hoping to break the cycle of poverty only to see it continue in the city.

It's not just in Vanier

The stereotype of aboriginal people in the city may be what people see on the street, said Fisher, but Ottawa is also home to a high proportion of highly educated people coming to Ottawa for work.

Maracle, who also serves as the executive director of the Gignul Non-Profit Housing Corporation, said Vanier remains a hub for new arrivals seeking afforadable housing, and said 60 per cent of his housing group's units are in Vanier.

But a new economic diversity is reflected in how geographically spread out the community is: from 2001 to 2006, every ward in Ottawa save one (Kitchissippi) saw growth, with some suburban/rural wards seeing substantial growth. (see map and table).

Wards with highest aboriginal population density

 Ward  Total population No. per 1,000 people No. per 1,000 people (2001)  
 Rideau-Vanier  2,275 60  41.1
 Rideau-Rockcliffe  2,000 54.6  42.9
 Somerset  1,030 48  27.2
 West Carleton-March  1,500 45.5  31.8
 Innes  1,675 44.2  27.7

Ottawa's place as the nation's capital means many national aboriginal groups make their homes here, and the presence of a large public work force opens up the possibility of future employment, said Maracle.

Fisher says there are challenges, however, to having the community spread out and not located in a few central hubs, as is somethimes the case with immigrant communities.

"It's really a challenge for the young and the old, as it thins out our resources and makes it harder to gain access to resources. So you have people who are ill who can't easily reach the services they need, and the cycle continues."

It is young and diverse

Places like Wabano and the Odawa Native Friendship Centre offer services to the community as a whole, but it would be more accurate to describe the aboriginal community as a cluster of hundreds of communities.

Fisher said Wabano serves people from about 400 of the 650 First Nations across Canada, and says the diversity of people, including Cree, Ojibwa and Inuit, makes Ottawa unique among Canadian cities.

Maracle said with that diversity comes an extraordinary pool of ideas and talents to draw upon.

Pushing growth over the last decade is the arrival of young people seeking an education, an identity and a future, say people in the community.

Statistics Canada Census data says close to four in ten Aboriginal people in the city were under 25 years old.

Fisher said the arrival of an infusion of young people should be seen as an opportunity for municipal officials facing a general population that is getting older.

It's in search of a home

Maracle said even among Aboriginal people in Ottawa who have lived in no other city, many people he has spoken to still don't consider the city their home.

Fisher understands the sentiment.

"My home is the Wikwemikong First Nation," said Fisher. "I don't think of Ottawa as home, and I've lived here 37 years."

But Fisher says for younger people born in the city, that perception could be changing, depending on how strong their ties to the community.

And she says people who arrive for the first time are often surprised how welcoming it is compared with other urban centres across the country.

"There is a special geography could tell people were thoughtful about where they put things," said Fisher.

"It is a welcoming city, that allows you to engage if you wish."