Rideau High School classroom an oasis of Inuit culture

Every Wednesday, Inuit students at Rideau High School gather to learn about or re-connect with their culture. But the school's scheduled closure may mean the end of this unique program.

School's potential closure threatens Inuit cultural club

Inuktitut language teacher Ooloosie Taukie bites into a piece of Arctic char at Rideau High School's Inuit Culture Club in Ottawa on Feb. 22, 2017. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

Every Wednesday, about a dozen Inuit students gather in a second-floor classroom at Rideau High School. Surrounded by Indigenous art and artifacts, they hang out, speak Inuktitut, and share food.

"We're not going to be able to do it unless we have an ulu," says Oooloosie Taukie, referring to the all-purpose knife used by Inuit to cut their food. Before long, the hungry students are feasting on pieces of Arctic char and caribou meat donated by a student's grandmother.

Keeping Inuit culture alive

It's all part of the Inuit Culture Club. Administered by the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre and funded by the federal department of Canadian Heritage, the program aims to help local Inuit kids learn about or re-connect with their culture and language: students like Emily Qitsualik, originally from Gjoa Haven in Nunavut.

Inuktitut language teacher Ooloosie Taukie cuts a piece of Arctic char at Rideau High School's Inuit Culture Club on Feb. 22, 2017. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

"I like to talk to other Inuks and learn more about my culture and try to learn my language again," she says. "When I was growing up, I learned it, but I lost touch of it. It's a part of our culture that we try to keep alive."

Another student, Junior Ittusardjuat, remembers the exact date — August 20 — when he left his father in Igloolik in Nunavut.

Now living with his grandparents in Ottawa, Ittusardjuat says he misses hunting seal, walrus and sometimes caribou. Asked whether living in Ottawa has been hard, he answers quietly, "Sometimes. It's mostly loud down here."

An oasis of Inuit culture

Inuit students Junior Ittusardjuat and Randy Ammaq hold up a plate of 'country food' at Rideau High School's Inuit Culture Club. Inuit people use the name country food to describe traditional foods such as seal, whale and caribou meat. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

While Rideau High School has more Inuit students than any other Ottawa high school, they're still very much in the minority.

Attending a school the size of their community back in Nunavut can be very intimidating for these students, says Taukie, adding that the culture club gives them the space to just be themselves.

"When they're in the lodge with us on cultural club day, they can be who they are," she says. "Telling jokes, telling a story, talking in their own language."

Worries over Rideau High School closure

But with Rideau High School expected to close at the end of the 2016-17 school year, there are worries about the future not only of the Inuit Culture Club, but of its students as well.

We fear that they will drop out. You can't create the same space.- Kayla Power, Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre

Kayla Power is a student support co-ordinator with the Ottawa Inuit Children's Centre. She says that while Gloucester High School says it will welcome new students, it's hard to tell how the Inuit students will handle the switch.

"We fear that they will drop out. You can't create the same space. You can't create the fact that it's in their neighbourhood. It's a part of who they are here as youth living in Vanier," she said. "They feel very connected. They feel very comfortable. They have this small piece of this big school."

If Rideau High School does close as expected, Power says she hopes that a similar reconciliation project will be put in place at Gloucester High School.

In the meantime, ​Taukie will be helping the students learn Inuktitut until March 29, when the project's funding runs out.

She says she wants Inuit kids in Ottawa to succeed as she has, by putting down roots while maintaining their core identity and culture.

"When I leave, I pat myself on the back and say, like, 'I made a difference in somebody's life today,' you know? It makes a big difference."