Walking in 2 worlds: Indigenous Ottawans reflect on leaving home

People come to the capital from communities across Canada for school, work, family and many other reasons. Many of them have found a vibrant, engaged community here, while maintaining a close bond to the First Nation or Indigenous community they're originally from.

Like many Canadian cities, Ottawa is home to a growing Indigenous population. People come to the capital from communities across Canada for school, work, family and many other reasons. Many of them have found a vibrant, engaged community here, while maintaining a close bond to the First Nation or Indigenous community they're originally from.

But when the spotlight turns to crises and tragedies in First Nations, there are often calls for Indigenous people to leave their communities and start anew somewhere else. In response, people living in First Nations have spoken out about their desire to stay in their home territory.

We talked to Indigenous people in Ottawa about why they came here, and why it's important for them to maintain a bond with where they grew up.

Tracy Lavallee left Cowessess in Saskatchewan to go to university nearly three decades ago. She's been in Ottawa since 2006. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Tracy Lavallee, 47, Cowessess First Nation, Saskatchewan

It means everything, actually. I mean, my entire family basically are all back in Sasketchewan, the majority of them on the reserve. And the connection is strong. I travel home every year, especially in the summertime.

Everybody always needs to have an understanding of where they come from and where they belong. And that's just a connection that you cannot ask somebody to let go of.

I think that people can be successful anywhere they want to be. Some people choose to be in the cities. Some people choose to leave their communities and go and get their education and go back home to the benefit of their community.

Ashley Courchene, 32, is a fourth-year Carleton University student originally from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Ashley Courchene, 32, Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba

For me it's a source of how I identify as an Indigenous person. I'm pretty sure that everybody's heard the connection to the land or whatever is how Indigenous people identify. But it's just the geographical location I think. Whenever I look on a map, I look for Lake Winnipeg, and point out the little spot where my community is. 

When I can, I like to go back home as much as possible just to kind of keep up with what's going on there, and that's easier through social media and the internet as well. And then it's also a big part of my own studies, in Indigenous studies. There are some assignments for example ... pick a community, and it's always Sagkeeng that I choose to write about. That way I get to learn about its history and the different things going on there.

Michele Bourque moved with her family from Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, Ont., to Ottawa when she was 10 years old. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Michele Bourque, 60, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Ontario

It was a family decision. My mother and father decided that there were no opportunities in Sarnia, so they thought it was best to move to a different location, for work, for economic reasons, to have a better life for their children. So we moved to Ottawa in the 60s, and basically grew up here. We still have a strong community connection, though, because the whole family's there, on both sides. 

Traditionally, we were pretty nomadic. We went where we needed to go when we needed to go. And if the fishing was better in a different area, you went to that area. And you just have to make the best choice, what's good for you. The community is still part of your identity. You're never gonna lose that unless you choose to give that up.

Ryan Adams left his home community of Couchiching in northwestern Ontario to start his post-secondary education. He's been in Ottawa for seven years. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Ryan Adams, 38, Couchiching First Nation, Ontario

It's like I never left. When I went to school, my long term objective was to gather skills — my education, and possibly a career — to bring back to my community. My goal has always been for me to go back to my community one day. I never, ever had the intention of just dropping it and then leaving. My intention was always to go back.

There's nothing like being on the land, being in my community, specifically. Because it's where my ancestors are from. It's where my grandparents are from. We have a long lineage. It's the whole territory. It's not just my community. It's the whole territory as being Anishinaabe.

Amber Potts left her home community of Piikani in Alberta when she was 18 to pursue post-secondary education. She's lived in Ottawa since 2011. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Amber Potts, 40, Piikani Nation, Alberta

What I think is really interesting about it is the Indigenous community here. I've never met so many Indigenous people from all over Canada — Inuit people, Algonquin people, Cree people, there's even other Blackfoot people here. And to see people come together in different celebrations is really unique.

Where I grew up is home. Where you grow up, it creates your identity. It's who you are. And so that's your touchstone, your happy place. The other day my boss asked me, because he always asks me interesting questions at lunch, he said, 'If you could be anywhere tonight, where would you want to be?' And he's travelled all over the world, so instantly you'd think of, oh I'd want to be in Paris. But that's not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be at my best friend's back deck on the reserve, looking out at the mountains.

Conrad Saulis left his community in New Brunswick in 1971 to attend university. He's lived in Ottawa since 1988. (Supplied)

Conrad Saulis, 63, Tobique First Nation, New Brunswick

I will always have a strong connection to my home community. It's home – the place I grew up – where I played road hockey, baseball, went fishing, went biking, where my childhood friends and cousins still live and where my parents are both buried. But it is also a nation thing, a strong connection to my First Nation identity because I am one of them and I always will be, no matter where I live. It's a matter of pride, strength, belonging and my inner being.

I was so glad when the legal decision was made supporting those who live away from the rez to be able to vote in band elections. I always felt that not being able to vote for the community leadership was a huge missing part of my life, so when off-reserve people got the vote, I embraced it fully.

Sage Picody moved to Ottawa with his family from Mattagami near Timmins, Ont., when he was 12. (Facebook)

Sage Picody, 21, Mattagami First Nation, Ontario

I moved to Ottawa with my parents and siblings to start off fresh and create a better lifestyle for ourselves. I find it hard to maintain a proper connection with my community because I can't afford to go back whenever I feel the need to. It is important for me to maintain my connection because it is where I grew up, and where most of my close family are.

Personally, I am thankful that my parents got us off the reserve, because we weren't so exposed to addiction of drugs and alcohol. I guess I agree and disagree because of the hardships of both (places). Moving to Ottawa, I went through cultural shock, which I'm still getting used to today, plus not having my close family around made it harder for me to adjust. Moving to the city has helped me and continues to help, because there are more resources and opportunities here that help me grow, and keep on growing.

Mario Jacko grew up in Kitigan Zibi, about 130 kilometres north of Ottawa. She visits her home community weekly. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Maria Jacko, 41, Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg First Nation, Quebec

I find I'm very lucky, because I do have a lot of friends who live like six hours away, or even across the country. And I feel very fortunate, especially. I have kids, and for them to stay connected to our community is important for me as well.

Vince Kicknosway is the Healing and Wellness Coordinator at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre. He's lived in Ottawa for 39 years. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Vince Kicknosway, 60, Walpole Island First Nation, Ontario

It's important to learn more and maintain my traditional customs as best as I can.

I find [for] some of the younger ones, it's a traumatic experience. Say, for instance, education ... because a number of rural reservations in the northern areas do not have college and universities ... so they leave for that reason, and sometimes it's overwhelming for them as young people. And they got caught up and wish to return home for whatever reasons.

Simon Coady and his mother left Iqaluit, Nunavut, for Ottawa in 2007 when he was 12. He's currently a student at Ottawa's Urban Aboriginal Alternate High School. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Simon Coady, 21, Iqaluit, Nunavut

I was just at that age (12) where I was so interested in everything else that the world offered, and I guess moving down ... it opened up more opportunities, more things to do, more places to see, more people to see, more variety.

I have family back home who haven't left, who visit sometimes. Got a lot of family back home that I miss. A lot of friends that I miss. Pretty much that's the reason that I want to go back home. Plus the land, fresh air, everything else, that community feel.