Young Inuk comedian uses humour to reclaim her identity

Young Inuk comedian uses humour to reclaim her identity

Inuk comedian Nicole Etitiq will be attending Ottawa’s Crackup Comedy Festival in March 2022. Photo by Nicole Etitiq.

The first time Nicole Etitiq set foot on a comedy stage, she was 19 years old. She had just moved back to Iqaluit, Nunavut after having spent her childhood and teenage years in Ottawa. It was Halloween night and she was at an open mic with some friends. In a moment of spontaneity, she got up in front of the crowd and improvised her way through her first set.

That was seven years ago. Today, this haphazard approach has cemented itself as Etitiq’s artistic process.

“I don’t really like to prepare too much because then I’ll start overthinking it and get stressed out,” she laughed, explaining the reasoning behind her resistance to rehearsing any material. “Just telling very real stories that are relatable and embarrassing really helps.”

For Etitiq, “relatable” and “embarrassing” include everything from detailed accounts of online dating in a city where she might accidentally swipe right on a cousin, to sharing her strategies for coexisting with her upstairs neighbour’s very loud sex life.

“I try not to be [political] because I feel like a lot of the time it’s so easy to become political,” Etitiq said. “For me, stand-up is very much energy exchange. When you go up on stage you are giving people a piece of yourself and I think that’s how it makes people laugh the most.”

While she rejects an overtly political approach, her raw and honest use of anecdotes from her personal life indirectly tackles topics of colonialism, racism, the housing crisis and mental health.

At a time when there is increased attention and pressure on Indigenous people to educate the country’s settler community about what their experiences have been, Etitiq is using the spotlight to do something radical. She is taking space to share stories about dating or picking up her Amazon-ordered vibrator at the post office. And it’s being noticed.

“Having Indigenous women, women of colour, women who are at higher risk for sexual violence and at higher risk for going missing, there is an empowerment for sure, to be able to explore that,” said Jenn Hayward, long-time Métis comedian and organizer in Ottawa’s Indigenous comedy community.

She met Etitiq four years ago, when they did a show together, and has been watching Etitiq get comfortable in the spotlight.

Etitiq has been invited to Ottawa’s Crackup Comedy Festival in March, where she will perform at the “Got Land” show alongside other Indigenous comedians from across the country. Aside from a smaller event in Nunavik before the pandemic broke out, this will be the first time she is invited to travel to share her art.

Nicole Etitiq performing on stage at Arctic Comedy Festival in October.
Etitiq performs at Crackup Comedy’s Arctic Comedy Festival in Iqaluit, in October. Photo by Ashley Board.

“Every comedian brings their life experience to the stage,” said John Helmkay, founder and president of Crackup Comedy Festival. “To have Indigenous comedians who grew up in small communities, or in different environments than Toronto or Ottawa, it brings a different perspective.”

As a 26-year-old Inuk woman dreaming of a comedy career, Etitiq has her feet in two worlds. She was born into a community where most women have at least one, if not many children, by her age, and yet she lives in a city where produce prices make avocado toasts as laughable a concept as home ownership.

Etitiq’s experience as a millennial involves the difficult work of reconciling the typical anxieties around what she is going to do with her life with her Inuit culture, that prioritizes community. Weaving together the different strands of influence that shape what she wants for her future is not straightforward.

“I think that it does really feel like two different worlds,” she said. 

Through the week, she works as an Inuit employment analyst with the Government of Nunavut, a job that she loves. On weekends, she likes to do absolutely nothing, or as close to nothing as she can get.

This can mean lying around for hours watching TikTok videos, playing Mario Party with her friends or, when she needs a good cry, driving around town in her recently paid-off car to the tune of Adele’s latest album.

Etitiq grew up in Ottawa, away from the community where she was born and where she felt most at home. Her dad moved her south when she was young in order to try to give her a better education.

“It was hard trying to understand my own identity of being Inuk and also living down south,” Etitiq said, explaining that she often struggled with feeling simultaneously “not Inuk enough” for her community in the north and culturally isolated in the south.

In an interview, Etitiq explains what it was like to experience micro-aggressions and field questions about being Indigenous as she was growing up.

Etitiq used humour to process the frequent racist micro-aggressions she experienced.  

“It’s the only way I really knew how,” she said. “My dad always jokes that I’ve been making myself laugh since I was a kid.”

As a child, Etitiq said she instinctually turned to humour as a coping mechanism. Now, her relation to it as a tool for healing has become much more deliberate.

“I really think that being able to cry and laugh is super crucial to looking at things in a holistic way,” she said. “Having people laugh, especially when we’re talking about serious things, helps people feel less embarrassed about things. We’re all human, doing human things.”

Nicole Etitiq shares her feelings about why she chose to do a comedy show on Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

In many ways, her embracing of comedy has helped her reconnect with aspects of her culture that had drifted from her when she was in Ottawa.
“I think as Inuit we are very funny in general and kind of make light of a lot of things,” Etitiq reflected. “We’re not too serious when it comes to sexual things traditionally, and I think that was pre-colonialism.”
Etitiq has noticed that her jokes land differently when she’s performing for a non-Inuit audience. She suspects they are less inclined to laugh out of fear of seeming culturally insensitive.
Hayward believes comedy can be effective as a tool for reconciling this guilt and discomfort that Etitiq has experienced in her southern audiences.
“It’s a way for non-Indigenous people to learn about harder concepts in a gentler fashion,” Hayward said. “It sort of humanizes. When you can put a face to it, and you can make someone feel something while you’re putting a face to it, that person is affected.”
While Etitiq also believes that laughter is a powerful in breaking down barriers across cultural differences and is in the process of expanding her content to include more overtly political questions of identity and reconciliation, her loyalties are still to her community.
“For now, this is something that I like to do for fun in my community to uplift the community and uplift myself,” she said. “With the housing crisis, and now Iqaluit has a water crisis, we’re a lot more gentle with each other because we’re all just trying to survive.”

Nicole's old Facebook post reads: Trying to flirt in Nunavut "Hey I have housing." Her response to her post reads "Anyone wanna be in love so we can split rent?"
Personal anecdotes that also draw attention to the larger systemic issues that shape her life are a staple of Etitiq’s comedic style. Facebook screenshot.

Etitiq uses her comedy to live out the Inuit societal values that were instilled in her by her parents.

“It’s an everyday decision on how you interact with people,” Etitiq explained. “It’s about thinking outside of yourself and trying to work towards what’s best for my community, my family and my friends, and also the connection to the land.”

Etitiq explains why comedy has been so instrumental for her in reconnecting her with her community.

Beyond uplifting her community, Etitiq uses comedy to reconnect with herself.

“Being able to comfortably talk about sex and things that happen in my own experience as an Inuk woman, to me that’s my own step towards decolonization and my own step towards reclaiming my identity as an Inuk.”

From passion to side hustle: How women entrepreneurs are building their dream careers on the side

From passion to side hustle: How women entrepreneurs are building their dream careers on the side

Farahnaz Hasan Ali, 25, a full-time development officer at the Alberta Cancer Foundation, is the co-founder of PreggoBox – a pregnancy subscription box service that caters to expecting mothers. Photo provided by Farahnaz Hasan Ali.

When Farahnaz Hasan Ali, 25, found out her sister was pregnant with her first child miles away in a different city, she and her family decided to send the mom-to-be a pregnancy care package with tea, belly butter and ginger cookies for her morning sickness.

Four years later, Hasan Ali’s subscription pregnancy box service, PreggoBox, is serving customers across Canada and sending expecting mothers gift packages full of locally sourced goods.

“When you find out your friend’s pregnant, the first thing that you probably want to do is buy a really cute onesie for the baby and give it to her and celebrate but I think often we forget about moms,” Hasan Ali said. “Sometimes moms feel left out when they’re pregnant.”

She says she’s passionate about making moms happy and comfortable during a transformative time in their lives.

Using their downtime during the pandemic, Hasan Ali and her brother, Faraz, did some market research to develop rebranding plans and revamp the business they first launched in 2017. Within four months, the duo relaunched PreggoBox’s website, began offering subscriptions and introduced its new branding. Now, they’re reaching a larger client base across the country.

“We saw there was a gap in the market and thought of a solution,” Hasan Ali said.

But Hasan Ali’s day job is working full time as a development officer at the Alberta Cancer Foundation in Edmonton. She is one of many young women across Canada who has made their side hustle more than just an additional source of revenue.

It’s a space for them to build their dream careers without sacrificing their main source of income.

Not just a hobby

The latest trends show many gen-Zers and millennials are taking on extra work on the side running their very own small businesses.

From Etsy stores selling handmade jewelry to the weekend-night wedding DJ or the Instagram secondhand vintage Versace bag seller, many women are hustling on the side or know someone who is.

A July survey by Abacus Data showed that during the pandemic, one in three Canadians pursued opportunities to make an additional income outside their primary employment.

Of the 1,500 Canadian adults surveyed, 51 per cent of the 18-to-29-year-old demographic and 46 per cent of students pursued a side hustle. 

According to Tony Bailetti, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, there has been an increasing demographic of 25-to-30-year-old women entrepreneurs.

Bailetti explained that 30 or 40 years ago, traditional gender roles like the expectation of marriage may have relegated women’s entrepreneurial ambitions to just a fun pastime.

“I don’t see what I used to see before,” Bailetti said. “I think that a lot of females viewed [entrepreneurship] as a hobby.”  

Today, Bailetti said he sees a shift in how women approach entrepreneurship.

“They want to make it on their own terms,” Bailetti said. “They want to make their mark in the world.”

Canada’s entrepreneurial landscape is shifting. Young women are taking charge and building their own businesses, finding new opportunities in what was once a male-dominated space.

In his experience as the director of Carleton’s Technology Innovation Management master’s program, Bailetti has seen increased entrepreneurial activity from female students that come from outside Canada.

Making moves in a male-dominated world

Tanya Hayer, 28, is a developer for Imaginism Studios who emigrated from India and now lives in Ajax, Ont. Hayer began her side hustle five years ago when her husband gifted her a camera to pursue her lifelong passion for photography.

“I do enjoy my job and I like programming, but the thing is in programming you’re basically sitting in front of the computer from nine to five,” Hayer said. “You have no interactions with anybody.”

She explained unlike her full-time job, she gets to be social and creative running her photography side business, but that work is not without its challenges.

Tanya Hayer, 28, a full-time developer, snaps a photograph. She pursues her passion for photography in her side business as a wedding and portrait photographer. Photo taken by Harpreet Singh.

“Being a female, it’s very challenging to work in the wedding industry. It’s very male-dominated,” Hayer said. “Sometimes you don’t get that respect as a [woman]. People think that they can talk however they want to you.”

Despite the challenges, Hayer is happy to work as a photographer on the side and has learned to navigate the business as a one-woman photography team.

Even though Hayer’s photography business is booming, she said she does not aspire to make her side hustle her full-time job, adding she enjoys the different aspects of both.

“They both keep me balanced,” Hayer said.

Starting small and making it big

Farahnaz Zawari, 31, an Afghan Canadian living in Calgary, Alta., on the other hand, wants to make her side hustle, Stella Décor – an event planning and decoration business – her full-time career.

She said Stella Décor is the creative outlet she has always yearned for. Zawari works as a dental hygienist full-time.

“It’s a nice job, but I am more of a creative person,” Zawari said.

Zawari’s side business started with a bad experience with decorators at her own engagement party.

“I was not happy with how they were not delivering on the vision I had for the engagement,” Zawari said. “The colour combination was not right and the customer service was not good at all. And that’s when I said ‘You know what? I can do this stuff on my own.’”

With a close friend getting married, Zawari brought a couple of her friends and fiancé on board to help decorate.

Their first event was a success, Zawari saw an outpouring of support and new clients through her network who wanted her decorating skills. Since then, Zawari has decorated 14 events through Stella Décor.

Farahnaz Zawari, 31, is a dental hygienist by day and event planner and decorator by night. She spends her free time coordinating events such as wedding and engagements and hopes to one day turn her side hustle into a full-time job. Photo provided by Farahnaz Zawari.

According to Bailetti, a major reason for women’s increased participation in entrepreneurship is that women are networking and creating connections, a key for entrepreneurial success.

“I’ve had days when I didn’t sleep all day and night or two days for an event,” Zawari shared. “It’s worth it because, in the end, the bride and groom are happy. That’s the main focus because they have a dream of how their day should be and I like the satisfaction from them.”

Zawari said her side business has seen a dip because of the pandemic and having fewer events to decorate, but she’s eager to build Stella Décor up to one day becoming her main source of income.

“If it becomes a full-time job I can see myself being an event planner, coordinator and designer,” she said.

In Edmonton, meantime, Hasan Ali is happy her side hustle is helping moms and shared that she’s looking to expand her business to also cover the needs of fathers and babies. However, PreggoBox will remain a side business for her.

“I find myself wanting to work way more on PreggoBox because it’s so much fun, but at the same time, I love my day job,” she said.

For these women, the age-old phrase rings true: Do what you love and never work a day in your life

Read more stories from young women entrepreneurs across Canada

Rabia Dhanani, 23 | Edmonton

Rabia Dhanani’s company, Siempre Eco, began as a summer passion project after she graduated in 2020 during the pandemic.

“Instead of going for jobs, I sort of lost everything and found myself at home with my parents,” Dhanani said, sharing a common struggle as many new graduates during the pandemic. “It started as a summer project to keep my mind off unemployment, to be honest. And that’s how I began making beeswax wraps.”

Dhanani began selling her eco-friendly beeswax wraps to her family and friends and saw a snowball effect of people interested in buying her products.

“It took about four weeks of experimenting and then I finally got the recipe right,” Dhanani shared. “They were good enough and cheap enough for me to realize that big companies simply mark up a lot of the products that are eco-friendly and that I can actually do something about this problem.”

Photo provided by Rabia Dhanani. Taken by Jamie Cornish.

Najma Hashi, 24 | Toronto

Najma Hashi’s side hustle is selling her ebook, Why Does Representation Matter in the Media? on Amazon Kindle and other merch. Through her book, Hashi gets to share her passion for fair BIPOC representation.

“Being a Black Muslim female, it’s important to let the world know that BIPOC voices and their experiences matter – especially in a world that tends to shut that down or dehumanize us based on our race, culture, religion, ethnicity and so forth.”

Photo of Najma Hashi taken by Jessica Trinchini.

Alex Neufeldt, 25 | Ottawa

Alex Neufeldt was working with the Government of Canada but recently quit to go back to school for fashion design. On the side, she runs her own dress rental business called Closet in the Sky.

“I have a studio in the Chateau Laurier where people can come to try on dresses, rent one they love for a few days, and then return it for me to dry clean – all for a fraction of the retail price,” Neufeldt said.

“I launched Closet in the Sky because I believe that people should be able to enjoy dressing up for a formal event without having to pay hundreds of dollars for a dress they’ll only wear once.”

Photo provided by Alex Neufeldt.

Nina Plummer, 25 | Edmonton

“I have always been a dogless dog-lover,” Nina Plummer said.

Plummer began her dog-walking side hustle on an app called Rover after returning to her hometown, Edmonton, in January 2020 after finishing an unpaid internship.

“I began to gather a steady group of dog owners from that platform. Those pet owners would tell their pet-owning friends about me, who would tell their friends, and so on. I began to develop quite the network and I eventually no longer needed the app to get business,” Plummer said.

Plummer explained that she needed income while studying full time.

“Contrary to most widely accepted notions, employment opportunities for youth were limited even before the pandemic,” Plummer said.

Plummer used her side hustle as a flexible way to earn money and help her mental health. “It became incredibly convenient to balance this side hustle with my studies and later with other work-from-home contract positions that I held. I eventually worked my way towards seeing a minimum of four different dogs every day which had really helped me get through the more difficult parts of the pandemic in both financial and emotional ways.”  

Photo provided by Nina Plummer.

Iman Tejpar, 19 | Calgary

Iman Tejpar is a student at Carleton University completing her undergraduate degree in Architectural Conservation & Sustainability Engineering. In her free time, Tejpar enjoys creating both traditional and digital art and sharing her work on social media.

“I started a side hustle last summer doing commission pieces and later in the year tried digital art,” Tejpar said. “From there I made stickers and sold them and through that, I got a lot of exposure.”

Photo provided by Iman Tejpar.

Aqsa Joseph, 25 | Brampton

Aqsa Joseph is a full-time nurse and five months into her eyebrow threading side hustle. She said her passion for threading eyebrows began at a young age practicing on herself after learning from YouTube videos.

“I’ve been doing eyebrows since elementary school,” Joseph said, adding she never took it seriously until her brother encouraged her to think about making it into a side business.

“So, I decided to try it because it’s so fun for me and ever since then it’s been going so good,” Joseph said. “I’m surprised by how good it’s going.”

Joseph says she’s usually fully booked with a mainly nurse clientele she’s acquired through her day job. She hopes to expand her side hustle in the future to offer microblading.

Photo provided by Aqsa Joseph.

Cassandra Liao, 24 | Calgary

Cassandra Liao is currently working toward her microblading certificate to build her side hustle.

“It’s something I can work on for years and learn different skills and use different equipment,” Liao said. “I want to eventually do other permanent makeup like eyeliner, lip blush, and to cover up scarring, and do nipples and areolas for women that had breast cancer, along with tattoo removal.”

Photo provided by Cassandra Liao.

Zahra Bag Jan , 24 | Calgary

Zahra Bag Jan is a full-time licensed practical nurse who works in an acute geriatric unit. As her side hustle, she co-owns and runs Hera Medi Spa with her sister in Calgary. They offer medical aesthetic services such as laser hair removal, Botox and filler, IV therapy and more. 

 “Hera Medi Spa allows me to practice my career and pursue my passion.”

Photo provided by Zahra Bag Jan.

To learn more about young entrepreneurs and starting small businesses during the pandemic, check out Jaimie Nackan’s article, Starting small: How young entrepreneurs are realizing their business dreams during the pandemic

The loneliness epidemic: How the pandemic is taking its toll on young Canadians

The loneliness epidemic: How the pandemic is taking its toll on young Canadians

Colton Harris, pictured outside his family home in Whitby, Ont., is a first-year student at Algonquin College. Harris said he wishes he could go back to in-person class. “I miss the human connection,” he said. Photo credit: Cindi Harris.

Nothing about Colton Harris’s life looks sad. He is expecting a friend in an hour whom he met on Snapchat. But, pacing through his spacious apartment in Nepean, the friendly 18-year-old said he felt lonely.

“A lot of people don’t understand why I feel lonely,” he said, while making a protein shake.

Harris moved to Ottawa in September from Whitby, Ont. to study fitness and health promotion at Algonquin College. He is one of the many young adults in Canada who report feeling lonely and isolated, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

According to a 2020 Angus Reid Institute survey, 63 per cent of 18 to 34-year-old Canadian men experienced loneliness and isolation, compared to 53 per cent of women.

Loneliness is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General.

Loneliness can manifest in different ways with different people, often in the form of anger, fatigue, depression, or anxiety, Murthy wrote in his best-selling 2020 book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

According to a 2020 Statistics Canada report, loneliness is associated with increased risks of mortality.

And research shows people who are lonely are often ashamed to admit it.

Harris says his condition deteriorated since June when his relationship with his girlfriend came to an end. “I feel lonely and depressed even when I’m around people,” Harris said.

“When I moved to Ottawa, I had no one to talk to. I miss my family and my dog Cali, a goldendoodle. She kept me calm. When I did not want to talk to anyone, I would take a walk with her.”

He said he also misses his girlfriend.

“I use Tinder and Snapchat to socialize with girls. I crave a sense of affection,” he said. “I thought they care about me. They don’t.”

One of the reasons Harris said he feels lonely is because there aren’t a lot of things he can do because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“With the pandemic continuing, I have less and less to keep myself busy. I used to play baseball. It kept me sane. But there are no sporting facilities nearby. I just go to the mall and walk around.”

Harris has seen a counsellor, but says he didn’t like it. “I would rather talk to my friends than a stranger.”

The paradox of social media

There are several reasons for high rates of loneliness in young adults. Perhaps most prominent is the age group’s heavy use of social media.

A 2016 study found heavy social media users are three times more likely to suffer from depression and loneliness than occasional users.

Candace Konnert, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, said social media use is related to loneliness in young adults. “If you are constantly viewing persons who are popular and socially integrated, then that’s going to, by comparison, make you feel lonely,” she said.

University of Calgary psychology professor Candace Konnert, pictured in her office, says loneliness can be prevented by taking measures early on. Photo credit: David H. Brown.

Konnert added a supporting environment is important.

“I am talking about family and friends and the extent to which they support you on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “It’s not so much objective support as it is subjective support — knowing that you can go to them if you need to talk about something.”

According to a 2014 study, there is a direct link between loneliness and addiction.

“Addiction could lead to less social support which could aggravate loneliness. But loneliness is a reason why people self-medicate. The relationship between loneliness and addiction is extremely complicated. It’s a circular relationship where one affects the other,” Konnert said.

A 2018 study by the Toronto Foundation found Toronto downtowners are less likely to feel their neighbourhoods are supportive of them. Across the city, young people aged 25 to 29 exhibited the lowest levels of social capital.

“People in this age group are busy establishing their careers, university students are often on their own for the first time and a task they face is to find partners,” Konnert said.

Tackling loneliness through community programs

Louis Keran, 18, moved to Ottawa from France in August to study communication and political science at the University of Ottawa.

“Most of my courses are online. It’s difficult to meet people. Some mornings when I wake up, there is no one to talk to. I just watch TV or play video games,” he said. “I feel lonely.”

Louis Keran plays video game in his Ottawa apartment. The 18-year-old moved to the city in August. “Sometimes I feel like I have no one to talk to,” he said. Photo credit: Amitava Kar

Keran played basketball in France, but hasn’t found a similar outlet in his new city. “There is an outdoor court nearby but it’s too cold to play. I wish there were more outdoor activities.”

Recent research shows participation in outdoor activities such as neighborhood walks, cycling and visiting local parks improves mental health and well-being. Taking part in these activities exposes people to nature, physical activity and social interactions that can have multiple health benefits.

Konnert emphasized the need to tackle loneliness at an early age.

“We have to take the long view. We know that kids who feel lonely are going to suffer loneliness as adults. That’s why each child must have access to facilities that they need to thrive,” Konnert said. “Some schools have come up with buddy programs and friendship circles. These kinds of social infrastructures for youth services are critical for targeting loneliness in young adults.”

One way to prevent loneliness is to look for early signs, she added. “We have to train family physicians, pediatrician and employers to identify warning signs.”

Social distancing predates the pandemic

Social changes related to family relationships are also affecting loneliness in young people

Young adults are seeing their friends and family less due to social distancing protocols. Millennials are more likely to say they have no close friends or have at least one best friend, according to YouGov.

But this problem existed well before the pandemic.

According to a report, 26 per cent of Canadians saw their family a few times a week in 2017, down from 38 per cent since 2003. Canadians also saw friends less frequently. One-person households are now the most common household type. In 2016, about 32 per cent of those living alone were separated or divorced, nearly triple the rate in 1981.

Others blame the decline of community and collectivism. Former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed once famously denounced what he called “the Americanization” of Canadian society, which “imposed an un-Canadian individualism on Canadian ethics.”

The American sociologist Robert A. Nisbet, in his 1953 book The Quest for Community described community as one of the powerful needs of human nature. But community is in decline, Nisbet argued.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created a new ministerial post to address mental health and addiction. Other countries have made similar moves. In 2018, the UK government appointed the world’s first minister of loneliness.

“The appointment of a federal minister [of mental health and addiction] raises the profile of the issue, but it does not guarantee success. These are generational issues. It’s a collective responsibility of everyone. What government can do is to mobilize people and set the tone,” said John Wilkins, a professor of public policy at York University who served 32 years in the Canadian public service prior to teaching.

While some classes are still online, his university is welcoming students back to in-person classes. “My students are back in class. But they are choosing not to participate,” Wilkins said. “They have withdrawn themselves.”

Back in Ottawa, most of Harris’s classes are also online, which means he spends hours alone in his apartment staring at a computer screen, instead of getting out and meeting people.

“I miss the human connection,” he said.

‘Am I going to be stuck renting forever?’: A closer look at Ottawa’s housing crisis — and demands on the federal government to help fix it

‘Am I going to be stuck renting forever?’: A closer look at Ottawa’s housing crisis — and demands on the federal government to help fix it

Ottawa city councillors look to provide reassurance to Ottawans struggling to find affordable places to live in the city. Photo by abdallahh through Creative Commons licence, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For Josh Horton, the housing crisis is personal.

The 32-year-old young professional living in Ottawa knows first-hand what it’s like searching for a place to rent in the city.

Josh Horton has been left wondering if he will ever be able to afford to buy a house. Photo by Josh Horton.

After dealing with a series of disastrous roommate situations as a student, Horton wanted to live alone. But this decision would not turn out to be an easy choice. Home ownership was out of reach, so his focus had to be on finding a place he could afford.

“It almost makes you wonder if purchasing is ever going to be an option for someone, especially someone who’s still early in their career,” Horton said. “Am I going to be stuck renting forever, or will I ever actually be able to achieve a purchase?”

After finishing school and securing a better paying job, Horton was able to move out of his student apartment in favour of a nicer rental with amenities such as laundry and air-conditioning.

But this upgrade cost him nearly double his previous rent. This was a price he was willing to pay, but experience has left him thinking about his future.

Rising vacancy rate

Young people struggling to find affordable rentals in Ottawa are looking for politicians to take direct action against rising housing costs, but experts say there are no easy solutions to fix the crisis.  

Rising rental rates are leading to vacancy rates in Ottawa that are well above pre-COVID numbers.

In October 2020 – in the midst of the pandemic – the vacancy rate in Ottawa was 3.8 per cent. That’s up from 1.8 per cent in October 2019.

Rising rental rates have affected young people’s ability to find apartments in the city, such as this apartment pictured on 1830 A Baseline Road in Ottawa. Photo by Mansur Omar via Unsplash.

Many apartments in Ottawa have been repurposed into short-term rental units. The number of short-term rentals in Ottawa has grown rapidly, with listings increasing by 83 per cent since 2016 and the number of exclusively short-term rental units increasing by 254 per cent over the same period, according to a 2019 rental market snapshot produced by Prism Economics and Analysis.

Ottawa’s short-term rental bylaw, approved in April 2021, restricted short-term rentals to only principal residences in residential zones. 

‘Federal government has to come to the table’

While the city’s short-term rental bylaw may help ensure more affordable rentals were available on the market, some argue the federal government, which has launched a 10-year, $70-billion National Housing Strategy to fund and finance affordable housing in Canada, also has a major role to play in reducing the strain on housing and rentals in the city.

But Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney says it’s not enough.

“If the federal government doesn’t begin to seriously fund the national housing strategy, there is not a city in this country that will get itself out of chronic homelessness and out of a serious core housing need,” said McKenney, who also serves as council liaison for housing and homelessness.

Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney stressed the importance of advocacy groups to support those in need in Ottawa and throughout the country.  Photo by Justyna Neon Lilith Czujko.

“The federal government has got to come to the table and fund its strategy. It’s got to give more money for new units.”

For Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, potential solutions to the housing crisis may lie in public housing and further access to funding. 

“I would like to see more public investment because public housing authority has control over what they build, and they have access to programs that really cater to making things affordable to people in lower income brackets,” King said.

For people worried about their ability to find affordable and appropriate places to live, McKenney recommends joining advocacy groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

“We have to advocate together. We have to fight together to make it better,” McKenney said.  “I would suggest people join a group like ACORN, work with people who share your concerns, but also will help advocate for you.”

ACORN Canada is a local and national organization of individuals and families of low and moderate income fighting for social and economic justice throughout Canada.

For King, his message to people in Ottawa and across the country is simple: the government and council are listening.

“We recognize this is one of the number one challenges for people. We know that, in terms of safety, in terms of just this basic human right, people need a safe place to live, and they need it to be affordable,” King said.

“We really need the federal government and the provincial government to step up to the plate and say, ‘It’s worthwhile, we’re going to invest in a real way in public housing.’”

‘There isn’t really a clear answer’

For Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor at Carleton University, the solution to the housing crisis is far from easy.

“All politicians would love to solve this problem, but there isn’t an obvious solution that doesn’t have other repercussions,” Malloy said.

One solution often proposed is to increase the supply of homes and rentals. However, Malloy said, increasing supply leads to trade-offs that must be considered. “There are issues about simply trying to service them. If our suburbs keep growing and growing, how do you serve those suburbs in terms of services and public transit? There are other costs involved.”

While renters in Canada continue to hear promises from political parties who take minimal action, Malloy said it is easy to become frustrated when nothing seems to change. But talk is critical to raising awareness to the issue.

“There isn’t really a clear answer on the political left or right, there’s not really a single clear answer, but politicians feel that they need to keep talking about it because it’s such a priority for people, and so they keep talking about it even though they don’t really have any solutions,” Malloy said.

‘Make the market more affordable for people’

Horton would like to see it be made easier for people like him to purchase their first home. 

“I would like to see a company that would do something realistic to actually make the market more affordable for people,” Horton said.

A step in the right direction for him would be for government to prioritize loan programs for first-time home buyers.

“If there was something that they could do to help with the market itself, I think that would be important,” Horton said. “Because housing prices just keep on going and going.”

Ottawa residents want change, but voter turnout remains low for municipal elections

Ottawa residents want change, but voter turnout remains low for municipal elections

Residents gathered outside Ottawa Police Services headquarters on Tuesday evening to protest a proposed increase to the police budget.

Back in October, Catherine McKenney called for a judicial review into the city’s LRT service during a virtual council meeting. At the time, the city’s Confederation LRT line had been stopped in its tracks for weeks following a Sept. 19 derailment.

The Somerset councillor’s push for a judicial review led to a heated debate regarding council procedure, during which Mayor Jim Watson muted Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans’ mic as she was making a point of order.

Watson later apologized to Deans, saying in a radio interview with CFRA’s Leslie Roberts he had only done so to maintain “some semblance of order.”

But after a move by protestors this week to block a busy downtown intersection in response to a police budget increase, Watson tweeted he welcomed “protests that are peaceful and not those that break the law,” leading some to wonder if the mayor is out of touch

Less than a year remains before Ottawa residents head to the polls and cast their ballots in the October 2022 municipal election. Between the string of LRT service interruptions, increases to police funding despite demands to defund and concerns of developer influence, there is growing dissatisfaction among residents who feel their concerns are ignored by the city council. 

McKenney, who says they are seriously considering a run for mayor next year, believes the discontent felt by residents stems from feeling dismissed and disregarded by the way the council conducts its business.

“People are asking for one thing and the majority of council is doing another,” McKenney said. 

“People are asking for real action on climate, and we’re not funding that. People are asking for less developer influence and we’re not doing that, the tax break to a Porsche dealership is an example. People are asking us to refund social and mental health services … and we’re not doing that, we keep providing huge increases to the police budget. People are asking for better transit, put the LRT aside for a minute and just think about transit and how we move around the city. We’re not doing that.”

These issues, McKenney believes, will likely be top of mind for frustrated residents when next year’s election day finally rolls around. 

McKenney stopped short of assigning blame to any individual councillor but emphasized that the “strong mayor model” of the current council prevents elected officials from effectively responding to the concerns raised by those they represent. 

By “strong mayor model,” McKenney is alluding to the group of city councillors, sometimes dubbed “the Watson Club,” who regularly vote in line with the mayor.

“The evidence is there, the mayor has almost 15 votes on every issue,” McKenney said, adding the city would suffer if debate during council meetings is not permitted. “Once you have a process where the mayor wins every single vote, where there is a group of councillors who will always vote with [him], it does not do this city any good.” 

Four young Ottawa residents sitting outside police headquarters on Elgin St. during Tuesday’s protest on the police budget increase.

“Of course, a mayor wants to see the city evolve in his or her vision. But you must have a debate and sometimes you have to lose because no one person, no matter who you are, knows what’s best for the entire city on every issue.”

McKenney isn’t the only councillor who has observed Ottawans’ rising discontent.

On Tuesday evening, Capital Coun. Shawn Menard tweeted: “I don’t think people realize the demand for change that this term of Council is creating in Ottawa. It’s larger than anything I’ve seen in recent history, much bigger than the 2010 sentiment.”

Menard was referring to the 2010 municipal elections that saw seven incumbent councillors, including then Mayor Larry O’Brien, lose their jobs following a protracted months-long transit strike. It was the same year that ushered in the Watson era.

Residents who were frustrated with the 51-day long strike – a result of OC Transpo bus drivers and city hall failing to reach an agreement on scheduling – headed to the polls and chose to elect an almost entirely new council.

The 2010 municipal election was first time since the city’s amalgamation that an incumbent councillor lost their position.

Watson, who has yet to confirm whether or not he has decided to seek re-election, has dismissed speculation his decision would be impacted by recurring issues facing the city’s LRT services, including the public inquiry announced by the provincial government on Nov. 17.

Should he run, he will be a force to reckon with. In the two previous elections, Watson has captured more than 70 per cent of the vote.

Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt, who was first elected in 2010, said concerns about councillors voting in line with the mayor are exaggerated. 

“It’s not uncommon … there are members of council who are adamantly against the mayor and don’t want to be seen voting with him and there are members of council who vote alongside the mayor without ever really knowing why,” said Moffatt, who has announced he will not seek a new term of council in 2022. 

“But I think there’s far less votes where this is the case.”

Too early to predict how elections will go but some residents are adamant that change is necessary

Even though some pockets of the city’s population are becoming increasingly vocal with their frustrations, it is too early to predict whether the Watson era will end in 2022.

“In some ways, people have been a bit shell shocked ever since the amalgamation of the city,” said Donald Swartz, a long-time member of Free Transit Ottawa. 

According to Swartz, when the eleven neighbouring municipalities amalgamated in 2001 to become the city of Ottawa, it significantly altered the composition of city council.

Swartz, who is Free Transit Ottawa’s representative at the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget, said he believes the work community groups are doing may impact how council approaches the way it serves residents.

The coalition is made up of several community groups who joined forces to release the 2022 Alternative Municipal Budget to pressure Ottawa city council to reconsider how funding is allocated to the city’s budget.

“Whether it’s going to be enough to change the composition of the next council, in any significant way, is far from clear. But I think it will push us in that direction,” Swartz said.

Farnaz Farhang, a member of Coalition Against More Surveillance, points to decisions made by councillors sitting on the Ottawa Police Services Board as a further example of city officials ignoring community demands.

Rideau-Rockliffe Coun. Rawlson King has said delegations who show up to Ottawa Police Services Board meetings and demand board members vote to reallocate police funding towards social services simply do not understand the division of power between municipalities and provinces. 

“The type of advocacy and questions isn’t suited to the Ottawa Police Services Board,” said King, adding that residents should take their concerns to the provincial government, not city councillors. “The reality is we’re constrained by what we can do.”

But Farhang doesn’t buy it. She said she believes councillors have the power to reallocate funds to community services and supports and said community organizations are determined to keep pressuring councillors to better meet the needs of residents. 

“Whatever happens we’ll keep pushing and we’ll keep showing up and we’ll keep working together,” said Farhang. “It’s just about keeping this pressure and momentum on them and make councillors think twice about what they’re doing.”

Voter turnout in municipal elections is notoriously low

But will this determination to push for change translate into votes next year?

As the municipal elections draws near, the old concerns about voter turnout will become more relevant. 

Elections Canada data shows that voter turnout federally is low, especially among younger demographics, but it hit a record low of 59 per cent in 2008. 

Despite a slight increase in the last municipal election, voter turnout has never reached past 54 per cent and was as low as 33 per cent in 2003. (From City of Ottawa).

Although there was a spike in youth voter turnout in 2015, the year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swept to power, the voting rate for younger Canadians was still more than 20 percentage points lower than that of the older 65 to 74 age group.  

By 2019, the gap had widened to 25 percentage points lower.

Similar data doesn’t exist to indicate the level of engagement of younger Ottawans in municipal elections, but if it did, it may tell the same story.  

Which is cause for concern considering the impact local politicians can have on the day-to-day lives of residents. 

Though younger residents may find the mechanisms of municipal politics opaque, difficult to understand and even alienating, McKenney stresses decisions council makes impact their lives to an extent other levels of government don’t.

“I tell people all the time, ‘If you’re going to vote in one election, you should vote in the municipal election because what [council] can do in four years [can] change how you live.’ There’s nothing close to that with a member of provincial parliament or member of parliament.”

Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of younger Ottawans to get involved in local politics and vote, the councillor said.

“Given that we’re only 11 months from an election, get involved now. Make sure to cast your vote so that we can represent you in the best way that we can.” 

Starting small: How young entrepreneurs are realizing their business dreams during the pandemic

Starting small: How young entrepreneurs are realizing their business dreams during the pandemic

Meagan MacKenzie and Kitana Samson show off their food truck. Photo taken by Mandy MacKenzie.

In August 2020, after finishing high school, Meagan MacKenzie began working at a food truck to earn money. She found herself working alongside a friend from high school, Kitana Samson.

Fast-forward five months, and the pair were signing documents in January for their very own food truck.

MacKenzie and Samson are among some of the young entrepreneurs who seized the pandemic as an opportunity to turn their business dreams into reality.

But these endeavours are not without their challenges. Learning the financial side of business, finding a work-life balance, and the unique difficulties of working through a pandemic are among some of the hurdles these business owners have faced.

The Raging Twenties reached out to the owners of two small businesses to learn more about the challenges and opportunities that arose during their first year.

From best friends to business partners

MacKenzie and Samson, both 22, just wrapped up their first year of business along with a third partner, Owen O’Donnell.

“I’ve always wanted to own my own business,” MacKenzie said, “But when you express that as a kid, you’re kind of told: ‘Slow your horses there.’”

They run their business at a permanent location on St. Joseph Boulevard in Orléans. Their truck, T.F.T That Food Truck, offers gluten-free, keto, vegan, and vegetarian food options.

With minimal business knowledge and experience, the pair found themselves on a steep learning curve to get T.F.T That Food Truck off the ground. Their former employer, turned mentor, helped guide them at the start.

“He flat out just found a truck for us and showed us what you would look for in a food truck, and what inspections you need, and then the cost behind that,” Samson said.

MacKenzie recalled certain benefits of opening their business during the lockdown in April. With restrictions on indoor dining in place, their truck proved to be an accessible and safe option for people to come and pick up their orders outdoors.

They were also able to spread the word about their business early through various social media platforms. Sharing their business on the Orleans Ontario Foodie Facebook group with the group’s 11,000 members helped drum up excitement for the opening and even helped them gain some regular customers.

TikTok was another platform that came in handy, giving them an opportunity to show the human side of setting up a business.

“It’s been fun for us to be able to document the process and show people like, not just the food and advertise it, but show the process of starting a business especially in 2021 when it was a bit more challenging,” MacKenzie said.

“It shows the transparency, we’re real people, and you know it’s tough work,” Samson said. “And we wanted to show people that, because sugar-coating it sometimes isn’t the best way to go.”

The duo experienced long waits for permits, found themselves ordering pieces of equipment for the truck without seeing them in person, and had their opening pushed back a few weeks due to delays related to COVID-19 regulations. Despite the challenges, they have found the experience rewarding.

“I’ve always enjoyed cooking. I mean, there are days where I didn’t want to be cooking in that truck,” MacKenzie said in a Zoom interview in November. “But the fact that I could spend most of my days doing what I liked with my best friend was just so great.”

“Basically, it was a healthy work environment,” Samson added. “So many places you work are toxic, and they affect you in your personal life. The truck, during the summer season, it is our life every day. So, it’s just nice to have a place to go where you enjoy.”

In the future, they hope to expand their business to include catering services.

“We want to be able to eventually invest in a second truck that’s just for catering, like weddings, events, concerts, anything like that,” MacKenzie said. “It seems like something we’re very interested in doing. We’re gonna give it a try next year.”

From hobby to career

Lydia Hanna, 23, followed a different path when she started her crochet business, Crocheting Giraffe, in May 2021. For the most part, she runs her business solo, with some help from her husband to oversee the financial side.

Hanna runs her shop online but said most of her sales are done across several Ottawa markets where she tours as a vendor.

“I didn’t really decide to start a small business,” Hanna said. “It kind of just happened. I wanted to do something that I love, and I just decided to make the Instagram account. Just seeing how supportive everyone was, I just kept going with it, and then it turned into doing markets, and now it’s my small business.”

Social media marketing is a significant part of how she runs her business, but Hanna said it is also very demanding.

“It is really hard to reach people because each day it’s basically 24/7. Like I’m sharing people’s posts, I’m interacting with as many people as I can,” Hanna said.

Hanna devotes a large part of her time to growing Crocheting Giraffe’s online presence especially on Instagram where she shares behind the scenes updates to her following of 4,000 people. She also posts photos of her creations, with some recent highlights including hats, pumpkins, dog accessories and even the occasional crocheted Batman.

Lydia Hanna stands at her crochet stall ready for her day at Stittsville Market at the Barn. She is displaying her crocheted creations, including seasonal pumpkins and a candy corn themed garland. Photo taken by Erik Hanna.

Hanna said that time management and finding a work-life balance are some struggles she deals with as a small business owner. She found sticking to her own schedule and transitioning her hobby into a business a particular challenge.

 “At first, I thought it would be super fun, you know, like I’m gonna love it. And I do love it. But I did kind of struggle. It’s hard to balance your time too, have your time away,” Hanna said, adding that in the end it’s all about time management. 

Aside from selling her creations, she has also considered writing and selling her own crochet patterns, so customers would be able to make the crafts for themselves.

“I can have people from around the world messaging me for help with crochet stuff, which is really cool. … Maybe that’s something I’ll be able to do next year,” Hanna said.

Small business owners remain optimistic

Isaac Kinsella, a policy analyst at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, finds that small business owners are usually an optimistic bunch. The pandemic, however, might have changed that.

“[Due to] the current state of things, a lot of what’s been going on is the optimism has been dropping over time,” he said.  

The COVID-19 pandemic, the labour shortage across the country and the debt that small businesses may have accumulated are factors that Kinsella said may be adding to the drop in optimism.

According to Kinsella, small businesses are also more likely to feel the effects of certain fees or costs compared to larger businesses which are able to absorb the financial hit due to their size.

“For businesses that are already pushed to the brink a little bit, additional changes or additional taxes and things like that aren’t welcome at this time,” Kinsella said.

According to a CFIB survey from November 2021, 43 per cent of small businesses in Canada are fully staffed and only 36 per cent are making normal sales.

“When you’re only making a fraction of your potential normal sales at any given time, any extra [financial] burden on top of that is really going to be felt,” Kinsella said.

Government subsidies over the pandemic worked well to give some businesses the cushion they needed to stay afloat. However, programs such as the Canada Emergency Business Account have since been replaced with new ones like the Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program, which offers rent and wage support for businesses with at least a 50 per cent loss of monthly revenue.

Twice a year, Statistics Canada releases Canadian Business Counts, with employees. This data shows the number of businesses, by number of employees, for December of each year. The 2021 data is based on the June report.

Kinsella also spoke to the importance of small businesses within Canada’s economy. According to Statistics Canada, small businesses employed 9.7 million individuals in Canada in 2020, which is around 64 per cent of the total labour force.

“And so, throughout the pandemic, I think what it’s done is we’ve had a little bit of an awakening to see how important that small businesses are, not only just to local communities, but also just the Canadian business economy as a whole,” Kinsella said.

Regardless of the challenges, small business owners remain hopeful and resilient. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s exhausting in every sense, mentally and physically,” Samson said. “But at the end of the day, I can look in the mirror and feel rewarded for what I’ve accomplished.”

To learn more about side hustles and women entrepreneurs, check out Rukhsar Ali’s article, From passion to side hustle: How women entrepreneurs are building their dream careers on the side.