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Ottawa’s Inuit Children’s Centre Launches Outdoor Education Program

Above & Beyond | January/February 2011  | by Ree Brennin

Traditionally, Inuit children learned about themselves and the natural world around them through direct experiences out on the land under the instruction of their elders. In our modern times, most formal education takes place in a classroom setting with outdoor education relegated largely to experiences children either do or don’t get in their home life. When Inuit families move to cities in the south, such as Ottawa, getting out on the land can be particularly challenging. Home to nearly two thousand Inuit, Ottawa has the largest Inuit community outside the North. Inuit children there tend to grow up as city kids, with little, if any connection to the land and their own environmental heritage.

To address this, the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre (OICC) launched an outdoor education program, beginning with a one-week summer camp held this past August. The OICC is dedicated to providing cultural, educational, and support services in a caring, respectful and collaborative environment that fosters strong and proud Inuit children and families. They recognize that giving Inuit children a chance to deepen their connection with nature and their own culture through culturally relevant outdoor activities is important.

The City of Ottawa provided funding through a Community Project grant and the Ottawa Carleton District School Board provided space at their MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre.

The summer camp organizing team consisted of Liz Lightford, Director of Programs, Heidi Langille, Bridging the Gap School Age Program Coordinator; Ree Brennin, a Marine Biologist who contributed ideas from her experiences at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and as a resource staff on Adventure Canada’s Arctic eco-tour trips; and Dion Metcalfe, as the Youth Coordinator who brought his invaluable experiences working with Inuit youth at camps. Both Heidi and Dion are impressive young Inuit professionals providing important role models for Inuit youth. Dion was recently awarded the United Way’s Community Builders Award while Heidi was just named one of the National Aboriginal Role Models through the National Aboriginal Health Organization.

The organizing team pulled together an impressive leadership team composed of experienced instructors from the OICC and Inuit teenagers who are part of the centre’s leadership training program. Together they brainstormed, planned and organized the week, balancing and integrating formal learning with arts and crafts, hikes and outdoor games, healthy eating, and time for exploration and discovery.

Three young campers enthusiastically gear up to go hunting for frogs, tadpoles, fish, and water bugs as they explore and learn about freshwater habitats.

Thirty Inuit children, ages seven to 13 were recruited through the OICC. Each morning the children gathered at the centre, ate a healthy snack, and then boarded a school bus for the 40-minute ride out to the camp. The bus ride was amazing fun, as it gave kids a chance to get to know one another, sing songs, and view the countryside and wildlife along the way.

The overall goal is to give Ottawa’s Inuit children an opportunity to reinforce their connection with nature through outdoor educational experiences that are culturally relevant. They connected with the animals and habitats of southern Canada and learned to relate this experience with animals and habitats in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, eating traditional food, playing Inuit games, and creating crafts to share proudly with their families.

In the mornings the campers had a handson learning session, focusing on a different theme each day. On the first day they learned about land-based habitats of southern Canada like forests and fields and compared them with Arctic-based land habitats like the boreal forest and tundra. Their morning snack included caribou meat, an example of an Arctic land animal. Each day this was followed by hikes, games, and arts and crafts that reinforced the morning lessons and theme.

On the second day, the focus was on fresh water by exploring the pond habitat, with frog catching being the highlight of the day. The snack included Arctic char and the arts and crafts project used real fish from an Ottawa fish market to do the Japanese art of fish printing called Gyotaku. Campers had as much fun painting their fish bright colours before printing it on rice paper as they did playing with the fish and learning about fins, gills, scales, fish biology and smell!

The third day focused on ocean habitats and Arctic whales, including a snack of narwhal muktuk (skin and blubber). And on the fourth day, campers learned about Inuit traditional skills and the use of Arctic animals that provide food, clothing, shelter and tools. They learned to carve chunks of soap, a beginning step to carving ivory or soapstone, and also learned Inuit games and how to make a summer shelter.

The final day of camp included a big game of “Predator and Prey,” a highlight for many of the children, and a chance to sing songs around the campfire and sleep over in the cabins.

Parents were impressed with how much their children learned about nature, Arctic animals, traditional skills and the arts. Based on the evaluations from both the participants and their parents, the camp was a huge success and now they are asking for more such experiences.

The OICC is now seeking funding to continue the Outdoor Education Program throughout the year with monthly activities such as fishing for Arctic char, dog sledding, and hatching goslings. If you would like to help, please contact the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre at www.ottawainuitchildrens.com