Chiefs try to maintain links with Indigenous people moving to urban areas

Some local chiefs near Ottawa-Gatineau are worried about the exodus of Indigenous people from the reserve to the city and are taking steps to keep their members connected to the community. 

Leaders not surprised people are leaving reserves for the city

Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict as seen on Kawehno:ke, also known as Cornwall Island, in 2020. He says his reserve is trying to keep up with the demand for housing. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Some local chiefs are worried about the exodus of Indigenous people from the reserve to the city and are taking steps to keep their members connected to the community. 

The Indigenous population in Ottawa-Gatineau has grown by 22 per cent from 2016 to 2021 and now sits around to 46,565 people, according to newly released census data.

A lack of housing, plus the attraction of jobs and a post-secondary education, are some of the more common reasons for Indigenous people to move to urban areas, chiefs say.

Abram Benedict, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne on the St. Lawrence River, said the people who are leaving for jobs or education don't go far and he tries to help them keep a connection with the community.

"We want our membership to be serviced by us, we also want the family connection for all of our members," said Benedict.

Every community is struggling 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 drives people away. 

"Every community is struggling with this. There hasn't been a community leader across this country who I've spoken to where they said 'We have enough homes for all of our members,'" he said.

Akwasasne is currently planning to boost its housing supply, but Benedict said it's hard to keep up with demand.

"We continue to build as many houses as we can with the resources that we have. Access to land is a challenge for us as well."

Establishing an urban reserve

Wendy Jocko, chief of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation south of Pembroke, Ont.,, said a lack of space and jobs on her reserve has pushed leaders to plan for an urban reserve in Ottawa. 

"Pikwàkanagàn is a very small reserve … We cannot reasonably house and employ all our members, which are over 3,000," said Jocko. 

The plan is still in the development process, Jocko said.

"Rather than our people moving to us, we're moving to them," she said. 

Chief Wendy Jocko standing outdoors.
Jocko grew up off the reserve so it's not a surprise to her when she hears others are moving away, but she hopes she'll be able to bring her community closer with new housing initiatives and employment opportunities. (Submitted by Wendy Jocko)

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson spoke about the creation of the urban reserve in his state of the city address in January 2022, confirming discussions were ongoing with "development partners" to find a location within the city.

Staying connected to home 

At a time where more people — Indigenous or not — are moving to cities, Jennifer Tenasco hopes to do the opposite.

Tenasco grew up in Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg but moved to Ottawa early in her life. Since she left when she was eight years old, Tenasco said she goes back to the community every weekend. 

Tenasco at a pow-wow.
Tenasco frequently drives home to the reserve or other communities to participate in powwows and hoop dancing. (Submitted by Jennifer Tenasco)

Ottawa has provided her a good opportunity to complete her bachelor's degree and experience life off the reserve, but she misses her family and the culture. Tenasco recently started making birch baskets and has to go home to harvest quality materials. 

"Here [the birch is] rotting and bubbling, but back home I can collect and harvest my birch easily, so that's one aspect that's culturally different, " said Tenasco. 

Enjoying her time at home also means being able to reconnect with her language, which is difficult to learn in Ottawa. 

"Our language is lost. My grandma is one of the last fluent Algonquin speakers. So to go back home and talk to her, [I can] try to learn the language," said Tenasco.


Cindy Tran is a reporter for The Canadian Press. She's based in Ottawa.