Helga

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca, Hello Ottawa

Meet Helga, a photographer and graphic designer who is both relentlessly positive and passionate about Ottawa. Helga immigrated to Canada from Columbia in search of adventure and snow; ten years later she’s still just as excited about living here as the day she arrived.

Read on to learn more about Helga’s life in Ottawa, her fascination with Canada, and her immigration experience.


Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca, Hello Ottawa

Helga, thank you so much for meeting with me. Can you introduce yourself to Hello Ottawa readers?

I’m a photographer, graphic designer, and communications professional with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Overall, I consider myself an artist. I’m from South America; I lived there until I finished university. In my late teens and early 20s life got exciting and there were definitely some adventures. That’s what that time of your life is all about, right? Anyway, a big adventure was about to take place for me, and that’s when I decided to move to Ottawa.

That sounds exciting!

I guess! My family is from Colombia. There are ten million people living in Bogotá and that felt very overwhelming to me. My dad was in the military so we lived on military bases and travelled all over the continent. We lived in the States for a while, but we were relocated every two years. I think that lifestyle became embedded in my psyche. I just wanted to travel all the time.

After my dad retired, I couldn’t wait to actually live on my own - on my own terms, able to do whatever I wanted. Just before I graduated from university, I told my dad, “Listen, I want to go somewhere exciting and start a new life, have an adventure - but I need your help.” And he agreed! So I started this hunt for the perfect place. I immediately thought I would move to a Nordic country.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca, Hello Ottawa

What was the draw to Nordic countries?

It was the exact opposite of what I had grown up with – tropical sandy beaches, palm trees and warm weather. I wanted snow, and to experience winter blizzards. I wanted winter gear, a winter sleeping bag, to build an igloo – all of the clichés! Of course I had really romanticized the idea. I had no idea what was fiction and what was fact. This was in the 90s, so I was able to look up a little information online, and I learned as much as I could about Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland you name it – all of the top-of-the-world countries. And, of course there was Canada, the biggest one. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that Canada fit the profile of who I wanted to become. It was just this big, beautiful idea of a perfect place to me, and I could see myself living here.

There is a lot of documentation, a lot of forms and stuff to do before you can even dream about immigrating to Canada. The whole process took over two years. I was very lucky that I had applied just a few days before the world changed on 9/11. I was worried, I had no idea what was going to happen; nobody knew. I thought, “The world is closing its doors, but I’ve worked so hard for this.” It wasn’t fair.

Part of the process included getting medical exams, a psychological assessment, and all sorts of stuff. It’s a tough process. The immigration officers at the embassy actually told me, “Don’t make any plans, carry on with your regular life. We can’t guarantee anything.” I was 22, willing to do whatever it took just to make this adventure happen.

Two and a half years later, I finally received notice that I had been accepted as a permanent resident. I was only given 30 days to get to Canada.

Were you ready for it?

I certainly was not. I never thought they would only give me 30 days to completely relocate my life. I was somewhat mentally prepared, but I had to wrap up 24 years of life in just a month. I was still living at my parents’ house; I had a boyfriend, a car, a good job at a publishing house. I even had a maid! I still really wanted to live in Canada, though, and it was so satisfying to go through such an intense process and have Canada say, “We want you. You are skilled and an asset to our country. Welcome to your new home.” That’s such an incredible feeling. 

I know I’m really privileged. Coming from a class-based society, I knew I wanted to experience the world by myself. Getting through the process was very important to me, because there is so much stigma attached to people coming from different countries. So getting into Canada as a skilled worker was very important to me. There’s so much self-esteem and self-worth wrapped up in that.

Anyway, I landed in Ottawa during the summer of 2003 with just the essentials. Well, along with loads of energy, hopes, and dreams!

Had you seen Ottawa before you landed?

No, at that point I had never been to Canada. I had only seen it on TV and movies – you know, the iconic Mountie, the flag, igloos, snow, seals, and polar bears. I really didn’t know much about Ottawa. I remember choosing Ottawa because it was the capital – in my mind that meant a gigantic, magical urban landscape where everything happens. It took me about a week to realize, “Oh, this is it? This is the downtown core?” The population is like a tenth of what I was used to. I was never disappointed, though. I was really excited to be here.

The first thing I did after I arrived was to visit all of the big tourist spots I could get to. I toured Parliament’s Centre Block, went to Toronto, saw Niagara Falls in all their glory.  I remember taking an obscene amount of pictures. Toronto was really more of what I was expecting from Ottawa, but I knew right away that Ottawa felt right, better. Felt like home.

I got a job pretty quick, taking photos in a portrait studio. I started volunteering, networking, meeting people. It didn’t take me long to feel like I really belonged here.  When the first three years were up and I got to file for Canadian citizenship, I was incredibly happy.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca, Hello Ottawa

What was the citizenship process like for you?

It was interesting, to say the least. I went to the best private schools my parents could afford but I never learned a thing about Canada. Going through the citizenship process provided me with the opportunity to learn so much about this part of the world, and I fell in love with Canada all over again. I felt like, as a new Canadian, I was truly becoming a valuable part of this country during this time and place in history.

I recall spending lots of time learning about Canadian history, although I must say there were some things that broke my heart. I learned about plenty of beautiful and wonderful Canadian moments, but when I first read about Residential Schools I couldn’t believe it. It was heartbreaking. Still, when I finally got to take that oath and say, “I swear I am going to defend this country,” at that very moment my life changed. Without a doubt, becoming Canadian is by far the most important thing in my life, and I treasure it very much.

And just like that - and almost a decade later - here I am. 

And what is your life like now?

Well, my career has improved! I’ve come a long way from working for minimum wage in a portrait studio. I work for a non-profit now, and I have my own freelancing business where I do work as a professional photographer. As a person, I’ve grown so much in the past ten years. I have a beautiful apartment, a career as an artist, and I get to live in Ottawa. I’ve seen this city grow so much since I arrived, too. It’s practically a different city. It’s hard to keep up with all the cool things that are happening. The arts and creative scenes are just booming.

Professionally, my greatest success was having my photos exhibited at the Ottawa airport. That was not only an amazing experience, but so thematically appropriate. I mean, I landed as an immigrant in that airport; the moment those doors open and you walk into the country is like being born. If someone had told me that less than ten years later I would be a photographer with an exhibit at that very same airport I would have said, “You can’t be serious!” Just like walking through that airport for the first time launched my new life, I feel like this exhibit was an opportunity for me to truly launch my life as a photographer.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go on holidays to the Yukon and Alaska, which was a dream come true for me. I went dog sledding, saw glaciers, wildlife, and visited hot springs when it was minus 40. I told my friend who was hosting me, “The beauty of this place is so overwhelming that I just want to fall down on my knees and cry.” They call it the spell of the Yukon for a reason. One of my dreams is to live north of 60 for a couple of years.

This adventure has surpassed my own expectations. I’m glad I’ve gotten to spend the last 10 years doing things my way. I feel like I’ve accomplished certain level of success, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca, Hello Ottawa

Thank you, Helga! Some of Helga’s photography can be found on her Flickr page.

Nick

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Nick, a hip-hop artist, dancer, artistic director, and student. Nick is very connected to Ottawa’s dance and hip-hop music scene; he just released his first few studio-recorded tracks as SORU (scroll down to the end of the post to listen to a track and find out how you can download the whole thing), and is in the process of recording his debut album.

Nick and I met on a rainy weekend to do some photos overlooking the Byward Market, a place we chose after searching out a location that would give us a great view of the city, that represents how Nick feels about living here, and that shows how connected he feels to the downtown core. I was very flattered to find out that Nick’s friend Bobby Green based a painting on one of the photos we took, and that Nick is now using it as the cover of his new release!

Read on to find out what Nick thinks about Ottawa’s music scene, how he got started in dance, and more.

A special thank-you this week to Sheila, who volunteered to transcribe this interview for me.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

My full name is Nicolas-Henri. I’m fully Lebanese by blood, but I was born and raised here in Ottawa, so I have a strong love of the city.

I’m studying Interactive Multi-Media Design at Carleton University, which is a joint program with Algonquin College. I’m hoping that one day if I get a job through that I can eventually become a Video Game Director - that would be my dream as far as a career. I’ve also been dancing for… well, I guess it’s going on my sixth year now. I was introduced to an organization called Culture Shock by a friend, to one of their youth dance troupes - Future Shock - and I’ve been with them ever since. I’m currently the Artistic Director of Culture Shock Ottawa.

It’s a lot of… urban dance, I guess? It’s fair to call it urban dance because we do hip hop, but there’s also breaking, popping and locking, and a lot of other styles. The media bundles it under the word “hip hop,” even though that’s not technically correct.

You have a dance crew of your own, right?

Had. We had a great run from 2008 until 2010. We performed in various shows, and in the Culture Shock Canada showcase every year. The crew was called dTALE – because we told a story and paid close attention to detail. I started the crew as a creative outlet and a way to have fun with my friends. I made many great friendships, had the privilege of training some great dancers, and learned more than I ever thought I would. The crew members eventually got really busy with school, work, and their personal lives. I also started directing Culture Shock, so we all went about our own thing. But we’re all still good friends and keep in touch.

I do music as well – I sing, rap and write. My artist name – my alias as a dancer and artist – is SORU. It’s an acronym that I created – it stands for “Someone of Real Ulteriority.” It basically means that there’s a lot more below the surface. You can decide to judge me based on what I’m wearing or how I’m talking but there’s more than meets the eye.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me more about your music… when did you start doing that?

I’ve been writing poetry since the third grade - since I was really, really young. I only really started rapping when I was twelve, and I started seriously trying to sing when I was fifteen. I’m totally self-taught. I’ve been able to build some relationships with other artists and people in the industry here – believe it or not, there is an industry.

I don’t think most people realize there’s a music industry here!

Well, the most mainstream artist in Ottawa is probably Belly, and then there’s Danny Fernandez. He’s from Toronto, but he’s signed to Capital Profit Records, which is Ottawa-based. There are a lot of producers doing big things around here, you just have to know where to look.

I’m fortunate enough to be part of a group of amazing musicians called DeadRinger. Composed of my great friends and talented dudes Real Raw, Sean Blake, Joe Nativv, Young B, Nakiem & Tony. The first three I mentioned also have a band called Bars & Tone that just released an amazing original album, which I’m also featured on.

There’s a lot of potential in Ottawa. There will always be a studio to record at in Ottawa, just like there will always be artists in the streets. Just because it’s not on the front page of the newspaper or not in the blogs doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I know a lot of really, really talented people in the city, a lot of great artists, but you have to dig to find them. Slowly but surely they’re starting to surface. I’d like to have the chance to feel like I’m one of them.

I actually just released a mixtape called OT State of Mind. It’s a compilation of hip hop and R&B songs that, in traditional mixtape fashion, borrow unoriginal beats – you know, beats that belong to other artists - to which I give my own flavor. It’s rapping and singing. The tape is available for free download through my Facebook fan page, my Soundcloud page, and on HotNewHipHop.

Come mid-December I’ll be going into the studio with Sean Blake to work on production for my debut album. Recording the mixtape has been an amazing learning experience that has allowed me to finally find my own sound. There’s much more to come.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Do you feel like living in Ottawa has influenced you as an artist?

You’re always a product of your environment, right? Without a doubt it has influenced me. Every city you visit, every country, no matter where you are, will have its own style, its own flavor. Ottawa has its own thing, for sure, but it’s hard to put a label on it, especially since we’re so influenced by everything around us.

I definitely draw from personal experiences, but I think what influences me most in Ottawa are the people. The people around me, the people I meet, and most of all the people who support me, see what I do, and choose to get behind me and become my friends or fans, and just support what I’m doing. There’s no better feeling than someone coming up to you and giving you recognition for what you put your heart into.

It’s really friendly here, and I respond to that. I think people who come here are caught off guard by how easy it is to just approach someone you don’t know.  I like to smile, I like to be happy – even if I don’t have a reason to. It might sound cheesy, but I live for today. I’m a very passionate person, and if there is one thing I believe it’s that you have to really feel what you do. If you don’t put feeling into it, it’s not worth doing. If you’re dancing, or making music, put your heart and soul into it and it will be reflected in your product. That’s my own philosophy, but a part of that comes from how Ottawa has influenced me: I see passionate, creative people and I want to be a part of it. It’s an exciting time for this city.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Nick! Listen to a track from Nick’s mixtape below. You can download the whole thing on his Soundcloud, Facebook, or HotNewHipHop pages. Nick can also be found on YouTube, and on Twitter at @nicksoru.

Sabrina

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

A fashion blogger and communications student, Sabrina uses her sense of fashion as a way to connect with the city and people around her. We met on a rainy Saturday for photos in Old Ottawa South, the first neighborhood Sabrina visited when she was being introduced to Ottawa as a student; it’s still one of the places she feels most represents “her Ottawa.”

As a special aside this week, I’d like to extend a sincere thank you to Jessey Bird of Local Tourist Ottawa, who transcribed this interview for me. Thank you, Jessey!

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

My name is Sabrina. I’m a third year student at Carleton University studying communications.  I’m originally from suburban Toronto, from one of the Toronto communities – Scarborough - that has an Asian majority. Coming to Ottawa was actually kind of a culture shock for me.

 I guess one of my main interests right now is my blog - I blog as Sincerely Sabrina. I used to blog under the name “I am Talentless” which is funny, I guess, because I kind of thought I was one of those kids who didn’t have any special talent or skills – like, I didn’t play the piano and I wasn’t very good at sports, so that’s where the name came from. I’m a fashion blogger, so I typically post on my own outfits, and I occasionally throw in items that inspire me. To take something from the inspiration around you and make it your own, I think that is what fashion really is: creative, inspirational, and innovative.  Starting a new blog has been really great for me because I’m kind of stepping out of that ‘talentless’ shell that I had, and moving on to bigger and better things for myself. 

You mentioned that fashion is about drawing inspiration from things around you and making it your own. How do you incorporate that into your own life?

Inspiration is something different for everyone, but for me it can be anything that catches my attention.  If I see something I like, I’m not going to copy it directly, but I will take aspects of it and add in my own ideas to make it more “me.”  I find that inspiration isn’t always a conscious act, so I tend to find myself using what I see all the time and hardly realizing it. 

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Do you feel like your sense of style has changed since you moved to Ottawa?

I’m definitely different from who I was in Toronto. In Toronto there are so many other people, it can feel like you’re drowning in a big crowd. Fashion is a way for me to stand out. I like going to class and turning heads in that way; I tend to push my limits through fashion, I think. What can I get away with in every day life? One day I’ll go with the three-inch heels to class, and another day I’ll go in five layers of jackets. I was more conservative in Toronto and didn’t really think much of fashion, but in Ottawa I can kind of let my creative senses be free.

Now that you’re here in Ottawa, how do you feel about the city?

I actually love the city. I honestly didn’t expect to love it this much. I came to Ottawa with the mindset that I was here for university, that I’d go back home to Toronto when it was over, and that would be it. Now when I go back to Toronto it’s almost like I’m a guest in my own home. Ottawa isn’t just a second home to me anymore. I think I’m ready it turn it into my home.

The cultural scene here is pretty interesting to me. I’m from a predominantly Asian community in Toronto so I often find myself comparing it to Ottawa. Here, I see Chinatown as a little street with a few restaurants and hair salons, but for the most part it seems pretty detached from the rest of the city. The same goes for a lot of the other cultural communities here, though.  It’s kind of ironic that Ottawa is home to a lot of foreign embassies, but there aren’t very many cultural events that take place that are open to the public.

As far as fashion, one of the first things I was told about Ottawa was that it’s a Gap city – you know, that there would be a lot of people who shop at the Gap and walk around wearing sweats – but that’s not it. When I came to Carleton that’s not what I saw. I saw people getting creative. Especially with all the students, you have a lot of people that come from many different places – Toronto, small towns, other places in the world, so there is some fashion diversity that comes together, at least on campus.

What advice would you give someone who is just starting to express his or her self with style and fashion?

Be experimental. A lot of people ask me what my style is, and I still call it undefined. I don’t have just one style that I prefer. I like being experimental and seeing what sticks. If someone were trying to test out their style to express themselves more, I would recommend being experimental with it. Keep a fashion journal – I blog about my fashion choices, which is like keeping a photo journal. It’s interesting to see how I have changed over time. I can look back and see how much I’ve grown, and how much growing I still have to do. Documentation is about looking at what works for you and what doesn’t – not just in terms of aesthetic fashion, but in terms of your personal style.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Sabrina! You can check out Sabrina’s fashion blog at Sincerely Sabrina.

Elsewhere: Q&A with Jennifer MacKinnon of Fenix Solutions

Jennifer MacKinnon - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

This week I contributed a guest post to the Lead to Win for Women blog, where I had the opportunity to profile Jennifer MacKinnon, Founder and CEO of Fenix Solutions and creator of Ottawa Women of Wonder.

Jennifer and I spoke about her experience as one of Ottawa’s first female tech founders, mentoring, and more.

Read more: Q&A with Jennifer MacKinnon of Fenix Solutions at Lead to Win for Women

Natalie

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Natalie, a social worker and the Manager of Operations at Operation Come Home. Natalie and I met after Corey – the homeless youth whose profile was featured last week – put me in touch with the Operation Come Home staff. He spoke so highly of the services they offer and the support they’ve provided him in his transition from the streets to student life that I knew I’d have to profile one of the social workers there.  

Natalie is the hugely energetic and passionate force that leads Operation Come Home’s street outreach team. We met for an interview and photos at OCH’s new location at 150 Gloucester, where Natalie showed off some of the beautiful jewellery created by street youth in the BeadWorks storefront. Read on to find out more about Natalie’s life in Ottawa, her experiences at Operation Come Home, and her thoughts on the challenges faced by homeless youth in Ottawa.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Can you tell me about yourself?

Sure! My name is Natalie. I’m the Manager of Operations at Operation Come Home.  I’ve been here for almost five years. I started out as a youth worker in the Education program and I’ve worked my way up to Manager of Operations. I went to Algonquin College’s Social Service Worker program, so I’m a Registered Social Service Worker.

My interests – well, I love my family and my daughter. I like the outdoors, going to the cottage, anything to do with water, water sports. Outdoor stuff. I like photography. Not that I’m good at it, but I do like a nice picture.

Are you from Ottawa?

Yes, I’m from Ottawa. I’m from outside of Ottawa, though. I grew up in Richmond, and I lived with my mom and my brother in Bells Corners for the rest of my high school and pre-college years. I actually just bought a house in Richmond - I want my daughter to grow up there. It’s a small, not-too-busy town.

What drew you to social work?

Well, even when I was in high school and did co-op placements I worked with disadvantaged people. I always liked working with kids. First I was a personal support worker, and I worked in paediatrics. It was really sad, too sad. I worked with two boys with muscular dystrophy. One has since passed away, but I still work with his brother. I’m still there any time they need me.

I was able to get a job in a youth foster home working as a relief parent. I worked with disadvantaged and abused children, children with ADHD and conduct disorders. It was a really great experience, and I wanted to work more with kids. It wasn’t full-time employment though, so I went to work in a place in Arden, Ontario called Arden Court. It was a 31-bed residential treatment centre with a mix of male and female closed-custody and open-custody beds. It was a good experience, and I liked it so much. But the commute was long, and it was a live-in situation, so I’d stay there for three days at a time and live there. It was exhausting, as much as I loved it. I started looking for something closer to home, and found a position at a group home in Ottawa.

Around that time I went back to school for the social service worker program, and I got a co-op placement at Housing Help. It was incredible. It opened my eyes to everything – poverty, homelessness, everything. I realized my calling was outreach – reaching out to people on the street and low-income people in rooming houses to help make them aware of the services that are available. I started working for Operation Come Home in January 2007. I keep growing in this environment, and my passion grows stronger. To me, there’s no need for these young adults to have to deal with what they do every day.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Can you tell me a little about what Operation Come Home does?

We have six pillars of service. We started in 1971 with our Reunite Pillar, which focuses on reuniting runaway youth across Canada with their families. Right now we’re travelling a youth from Toronto to Newfoundland. It’s a really involved process. We work with Greyhound, and it’s a four-day trip to Newfoundland. We arrange for bagged lunches and snacks to meet him at pit stops, dropped off by shelters across Canada.

We also have an Outreach Pillar, an Employment Pillar, a Housing Pillar, an Education Pillar, and a Drop-in Pillar. Our point of contact is the drop in; youth come here and get to know the services we offer, realize what we can do for them. We can offer them employment through our Bottle Works social enterprise, our BeadWorks social enterprise, and the Job Action Centre, which is a skills development and employment centre with a full-time employment councillor. Our BottleWorks enterprise has more than 70 contracts with clubs, pubs, bars, hotels and condominiums across the city.  BottleWorks picks up their empty bottles.  In addition to that, BottleWorks picks up donated empty Beaus bottles.  Beaus All Natural Brewing Co. is our corporate partner. BottleWorks employs three youths full time on a four-month contract, and every four months new youth are chosen and employed. At the BeadWorks enterprise we have at-risk and homeless youth crafting one-of-a-kind jewellery, and we have a storefront to sell their creations, at 150 Gloucester. The youth create beautiful jewellery and get 75% of the profit. It’s an amazing store.  The shop is open from 10:00-5:00 from Monday to Friday.

Our school, the Achievement Centre, is partnered with the Ottawa Catholic School Board and Sage Youth. We have a full-time teacher, support staff and literacy support staff. Youth can come in and earn high school credits and prepare for their GED. We’re partnered with Lester B. Pearson high school, which means that youth who graduate through our program get a diploma or certificate from there – so there’s no stigma attached to graduating from a drop-in centre. It’s an amazing partnership. They’ve been so dedicated in assisting with our graduations, and they’ve been there for us when a youth recently passed away. Just extremely supportive. We make the environment very safe, so no matter the reason a youth dropped out of school – bullying, teen pregnancy, because they are gay, bad family situations, all the many reasons kids drop out of school – they find support here. We have a lot of community partnerships, like with Ottawa Mental Health, Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, and the City of Ottawa Sexual Health Clinic.

Our outreach program runs twice a day. We go out there and try to find youth who are street homeless and connect them with housing options and other referrals. We hand out water and granola bars, sleeping bags, socks. The outreach workers try to find the youth who are in need, or new to the streets and scared and maybe don’t know about the young men and women’s shelters that are available to them. The outreach workers are volunteers, and we really can’t thank them enough.

How many youth do you serve here?

We serve between 75 to 100 youth in all of our programs each day.

What kind of challenges do homeless youth face in Ottawa?

I do think there are a lot of youth services in Ottawa, but the challenges of being a street youth are waiting lists for mental health, addiction, and housing. Waiting lists, waiting lists, waiting lists. That’s what our youth hear every day. There aren’t enough youth beds, and once you turn 18 you’re expected to stay at the adult shelters, which I don’t think is right. I do feel that there need to be more beds in Ottawa for youth. I know of probably 12 to 15 youths that access our services who sleep on the streets or in parking garages, or in bushes, or they camp. They don’t want to stay in shelters, or there’s not enough room in shelters, or they don’t want to stay in adult shelters. You know, I always say, “Come see me, just come see me,” because we’ll help them figure it out, help them find a place to stay. But they’re in groups, and they’re not going to leave anyone behind. So if someone can’t get a bed, none of them will go.

If you could change anything in Ottawa, what would it be?

I would just give these kids a chance. They’ve been so… pushed around. I know our drop-in is for youth aged 16 to 25 and they’re not really kids, but I call them my kids. They’re each just really amazing. I really want to see them do well, and I really want to see them be given a chance.

Since I’ve been here, Operation Come Home has lost five youth. We have a memorial wall. Cactus, Tammy, Jake Lawson, Jen - and we just recently lost Leanne. It breaks my heart. They were street homeless youth, a youth who was at a party and stabbed in the chest, Jake Lawson, who drowned, Jen who overdosed, and Leanne who was a user. None of those deaths needed to happen. You know, if they had been able to get through those wait lists — for housing, addiction services, whatever it was they needed – well. It didn’t need to happen. I don’t think I could handle losing another one. These youth need a chance, and there need to be so many more opportunities. We do the best we can here, but there’s so much space for more.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Natalie! Operation Come Home is celebrating both their 40th anniversary and the grand opening of their new location at 150 Gloucester on September 22nd with an open house. If you would like to visit Operation Come Home and learn more about the services they offer to Ottawa’s homeless youth, drop by 150 Gloucester between 2:00 and 7:00 on Wednesday September 22, or visit http://operationcomehome.ca for more information. Operation Come Home can also be found on Twitter at @ochottawa.

Corey

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Corey, a homeless youth who has been living on the streets of Ottawa for the past year. Corey’s story is pretty inspirational: in the time since we met for this interview four weeks ago, he’s been accepted to Algonquin College, admitted to transitional housing, and started his first week of classes in Algonquin’s General Arts program, despite having to jump some pretty time-consuming and exhausting hurdles to make it all happen.

Corey’s photos were taken outside of Operation Come Home, a drop-in centre on Gloucester Street that serves Ottawa’s street youth; it’s a place where Corey spends a lot of time and has received a lot of support. Please read on to learn about Corey’s life in Ottawa as a homeless youth, his views on street life, and more.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

Well, my name is Corey. I do odd jobs, you know, if something comes my way. Usually I find out about gigs through one of the city drop-ins or on Kijiji – that’s where I find most of my jobs. Apart from that, I’m trying to go to school right now. I’m planning on doing General Arts and Sciences- Community Studies so that next year I can get in to the Social Service Worker program at Algonquin. I do a couple of side things – you know, hang out with friends, go to the youth drop-in centres. Stuff like that.

Are you from Ottawa?

No, actually, I’m from Hawkesbury. It’s about an hour and a half away. It’s a small town. It’s basically the mid-point between Ottawa and Montreal.

What brought you to Ottawa?

Well, I stopped living with my parents. It was kind of a kicked out-slash-I’m leaving scenario, you know? I finished high school, and realized that there was really nothing for me in Hawkesbury. I couldn’t get a job, and there’s no college there or anything. I packed everything up and decided to leave. I had about four garbage bags, some backpacks, a few boxes. I’ve been in Ottawa for about a year and a half now. I lived with my cousin for about two months, and then I moved in to the YMCA’s second-stage housing for about six months. Since then, I’ve been on the streets of Ottawa. I was living on the street before, in Hawkesbury.

Can you tell me about that?

I was technically emancipated from my parents the night before my 18th birthday, but even before that it was this situation where I’d be kicked out of the house most of the time. You know, I was only staying there maybe once or twice a week at most. I got tired of it and just stopped showing up. There were times when I’d get off the bus from school and just go to a buddy’s place, no questions. My parents and I fought a lot, and I just didn’t want to deal with it any more. It was mostly verbal, but sometimes physical between me and my dad. I was finally like, you know what? My eight year old sister is listening to this, exposed to this all the time. I’m not doing that to her any more. So I just got my things and left.  I cut off all communication with my parents – if they found a way to communicate with me, I’d cut it off. Change my phone number, change my email address, change my name on Facebook.

There were nights before that, though – starting sometime around the summer I turned 17 in 2009 – I’d spend quite a few nights on the streets in Hawkesbury when I had nowhere to go. You know what, though, now that I’m in Ottawa I feel like I’m less homeless. I’m still living in shelters and visiting drop-in centres, but at least I can do that here. In Hawkesbury there was just nothing. There was only a food bank that you’d have to pay $5 to access. So if you’re in the streets there, you’re really on the streets, on your own. In Ottawa there are a lot of services. You can stay really well fed at the drop-ins. During the day, I’ll get breakfast at one drop-in, lunch or dinner at another. Especially as a youth, it’s not difficult to feed yourself here. In Hawkesbury, I panhandled a lot, I had to steal. Sometimes I’d sneak into my parent’s house in the middle of the night after everyone had gone to bed and grab food from the pantry and leave again.

But, I mean, here in Ottawa the services are incredible. For example, the drop-in down the street is Operation Come Home. They help youth aged 16 to 24, and they have an employment program where you get paid minimum wage to learn how to make a resume and find a job. There’s also the Youth Services Bureau, which has a lot of the same services but for people 16 to 21. They have daily lunches, counselling, showers, computers, a nurse practitioner. You can’t live at the drop-ins, but for youth 16 to 21 there are two shelters run by the YSB. They’re more of a safe haven compared to a lot of the adult shelters. I’ve stayed at the Mission, the Salvation Army, the Shepherds of Good Hope, and they’re pretty unpleasant. A lot of older people, just angry at life. A lot of violence and drugs, and your stuff will definitely get stolen.

Since I’m 19, I don’t qualify for overflow any more. Overflow is when there’s no room at one of the youth shelters, they’ll find a place for the 16 and 17 year olds to stay. A couch in the common room, or if it’s really bad the city will give you a hotel room until a bed is available. But, if you’re 18 or over, you get sent to the adult shelters. I have anxiety issues, and when I go to those places my anxiety just gets out of control. I’ll just sit on Rideau Street instead, stay up all night, and then pass out on a couch in one of the drop-in centres during the day.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Can you tell me what living on the streets in Ottawa has been like for you?

Yeah. It’s not something I enjoy. There are some people who live on the streets and enjoy it, it’s not a problem. For me, one day I want to get out of the shelter systems and get away from the drop-ins. Get away from Ontario Works and all that. I’d like to have my own apartment and a full-time job doing something I like to do. I’d like to get to that point where I have a wife and two kids and a house, and a backyard. All that!

Temporarily, though, being on the streets is something I’ve become accustomed to. I have a lot of services I can access, so it’s not like when I was in Hawkesbury and would have to sleep in a park somewhere on a bench or in a play structure. And, I mean, since coming to Ottawa I’ve met so many different people. Before I came to Ottawa I had never met a transgendered person, and when I started going to the drop-ins I met three on the same day. I didn’t know! I thought transgendered people, LGBTQ people, were one in a million, something just in movies. But that’s totally not true. I’ve met so many different types of people.

A big problem with downtown is the drugs. Marijuana isn’t even considered a drug, it’s everything else. I know it’s stereotypical to say, but it’s true: among homeless people, drugs are the number one issue. I just watch people and think, “How can you do that to yourself?” I look at a lot of street youth who are starting to do that stuff, and I just want to say, you know, “Go home! You have a bed at home, parents who will take care of you, even if you don’t get along.”

Do you think you would have taken that same advice?

Well, no. I’d be a hypocrite to say otherwise. At that age I was into some pretty bad stuff, but the stuff I’m seeing youth do now is way worse than what I did. And, I mean, I checked myself into a sobriety home. In the situation I was in, I just looked at my life and thought, well, I’m really stressed out, my parents don’t want me around, I have very few friends because of my living situation – I want to get this off my brain. At that time, my only stress relief was drugs. I will tell people younger than me to get away from it, though. It’ll ruin you.

As far as selling drugs, that’ll get you into a mess too. I’d rather just go to a street corner with a sign and panhandle for the day. I don’t keep a sign with me because police view panhandling as illegal and if they search your backpack and find one you can get in trouble. They’ll charge you a $65 fine if you’re panhandling. I mean, realistically, if you get a ticket for panhandling you just walk away and rip it up. How are you gonna pay that? You’re already panhandling for your dinner.

What kind of response do you get from people when you’re panhandling in Ottawa?

When I’m panhandling myself, passers-by will just walk by you like you’re a ghost. It’s hard, you can’t really make that much. People don’t even stop for a second to read the sign.

When I do panhandle, I find a piece of cardboard and write “Hungry, broke, homeless – anything helps.” Anything someone give does actually help. Change, food. Yesterday I was panhandling on Elgin Street, and a guy stopped and actually chatted with me for a few minutes, and then he offered to bring me to Subway. He bought me a drink and a sub. He said I could get anything on the menu, so I got something cheap because I didn’t want him to have to pay so much. I was surprised, he didn’t even get anything for himself. I guess he was just going in that direction and decided to help me out. That’s really rare. More often people just drop off a little change, you know, 25 cents, maybe a dollar. It seems like everyone is just on the go, and no one has even a minute to stop, read the sign, and be interested. I mean, if you get someone a large drink from McDonald’s for a buck that’ll keep someone full for almost a whole day, but no one thinks to do that.

If I don’t have a legitimate reason to panhandle, I won’t do it. Most people who are panhandling don’t like doing it any more than the people walking down the street like seeing it. It’s not like you wake up in the morning and are like, “Oh, panhandling sounds fun. I think that’s what I’ll do today.”  Sometimes you just have to though. I’ll have to feed myself, or pay a bill, and maybe I didn’t find any paying odd-jobs that day. If people just stop for a minute and ask, “What are you doing here?” if they’re kind enough to stop and ask me about why I’m there, I find that really generous. It gives you hope when someone is nice, you don’t feel so invisible.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

You’ve been working very hard to get into college. I was really impressed by all of the obstacles you’ve been able to overcome, like getting ID and chasing paperwork, and just the pure logistics of getting into and attending school while you’re living on the street.  That’s been pretty difficult for you, right?

Yeah. To get into school I had to go through this process for OSAP so that I could prove I was emancipated, on my own. I had to prove that I can’t rely on my parents. I also had to get a birth certificate, a Social Insurance Number, and I had to do the college application all by myself. I had to be pretty motivated to do that. I’ve always been pretty motivated about that stuff, though. When I was in Hawkesbury I made sure I got my high school done before I left, even though I was living on the streets for part of it. My objectives since I was sixteen or seventeen have been to get out of Hawkesbury, get my life set up. I really thought that after those first two months I was in Ottawa living with my cousin that I’d be able to have my life set up, that I’d be fine. When those two months were up and I didn’t have a job, a place, or any of the things I was hoping for, I was really struggling. I had gotten away from homelessness for a while, but I ended up right back there.

I felt really low, like a nobody who couldn’t accomplish anything. But I just thought, well, you know what? Even though I’m homeless my goal is to still go to school. I can make that happen. There are students who do it, who go to college even though they’re homeless. It’s a long process and it’s going to take some time, obviously, but I’ll feel pretty good when I’m done it.

The reason I want to do the Social Service Worker program at Algonquin is because I’m always playing the councillor role with my friends. I’ve always been like that with people in my life. Also, the actual councillors at the drop-ins I go to are really amazing. They’re committed and always helping out. I want to be able to do that, I want to be that person. I want to work in drop-ins because I’ve been there, or maybe in a group home. I want to get into something that I can relate to.  

My goals right now are to just get into school and find a job, and then find a place to live. I hope things will fall into place. I’m not doing too bad.

What do you want people to know about being a homeless youth?

Like I said, people stereotype all the time. People think that youth are all about drugs, alcohol, causing havoc. Honestly, that’s not true. I’ll admit there are some youth that do abuse drugs and commit crimes, but I would rather people look at individuals – especially homeless youth – and actually ask, you know, “Why are you in this situation?” Actually pay attention. We might be on the streets and might not have a lot to believe in, but everyone has a goal and a past and a reason for being where they are. If people take five minutes out of their day to listen to someone’s story, that’s all we need. Telling your story in those five minutes could inspire someone to help out and maybe see that there’s more than stereotypes, but also it’s just nice to feel like you’re not invisible, that someone gives a damn about why you’re sitting on that corner. Feeling like you’re not just a shadow or a nobody, that you might actually be interesting, is really motivating.

That’s all I want to get across, really. If you have the time, listen to a youth.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Corey!

Emilia

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Emilia, owner of Lilac Lingerie, a boutique lingerie store in Westboro. When Emilia contacted me about being profiled she was worried about talking about her business too much: “I don’t want to come across like I’m just doing this to promote the store,” she said, “but the store is my life! If we talk about me we’ll have to talk about the store.” And, it’s true! As a local small business owner, Emilia and her family are devoted to the success of her shop, which focuses on providing affordable, high-quality lingerie.

Aside from being a business owner, though, Emilia is also a mom, a clubber, a Bulgarian ex-pat, and self-described “devoted redhead.” We did her photos in her store – of course! – and on Britannia Beach, one of her favourite places in the city. Read on to find out more about Emilia and her experience in Ottawa.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

My name is Emilia, and I moved to Canada about 10 years ago. I’m from Eastern Europe, but Ottawa is my home now. Originally we were thinking about just being here for a few years and then travelling the world, but my husband found a very good job and I went to school at the University of Ottawa. When I finished school I felt established here, we bought a house, had a daughter, and now we have a business. So we’re pretty much staying. We’ve gotten used to Ottawa, and we don’t want to move. I grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, which is a much bigger city than Ottawa. But I like that it’s not as busy here. Sofia is very intense, and very condensed. There are a lot of people in a very small space.

I went to university for communications, worked a little bit in that field in the private sector, in non-profits, and later for the government. In January 2010 I started my own business, Lilac Lingerie. The boutique opened doors in August that year. It’s going well – it’s getting busier every month, which is great. It’s kind of a unique thing that we offer. We do bra fittings, but we also carry lingerie from all over the world. Chemises, bustiers, camisole sets – all very feminine and pretty, and most of the time not available anywhere else in town.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

What made you decide to open a lingerie shop?

Well, I always wanted to have a business. I was searching for an idea that was very personable and face-to-face, something I could build a little community around. I thought about a coffee shop, but I’m not really much of a food person. For a long time I brainstormed ideas, but nothing seemed quite right. Finally over Christmas it all kind of solidified, and opening a lingerie boutique started to make a lot of sense. My husband was very keen, so we thought about it, did some research, and then just decided to do it.

I’ve always had a passion for lingerie. When I first let it out that I was opening a store, my friends all said, “I didn’t know you were interested in that!” But a passion for lingerie is not something you talk about, really! Now I get to talk about it all the time. When new shipments come into the store it’s like Christmas, we all get so excited. In general Lilac is a very positive environment, a very positive place to be. People only go lingerie shopping when they’re in the mood for it, so my customers are always really smiley.

 Was starting the business challenging?

Starting a business is challenging everywhere, I think. Winter isn’t on my side because we still have to rely on a lot of walk-in traffic. Luckily my clients are very happy. They’re open, they like talking – they’re just very friendly people. We’ve gotten great feedback. When we opened we had other businesses on the street send us flowers and chocolate. It was very nice welcome. Our clients and the neighbouring businesses have been really supportive. They’re helping us a lot with word of mouth.

And things are going well now? Are you enjoying being a business owner as much as you expected to?

I am definitely enjoying being a business owner, although there’s no work-life balance! It’s all business – it’s taken over my life. I do try to keep some time for myself because the business needs me fresh, but it’s constant work. There’s a lot of relationship building, a lot of hands-on work with clients, and of course there’s the operational side. I’m definitely looking forward to a vacation when I can really spend some time with my daughter, my husband and my friends.

I do see that people are starting to specifically look for Lilac, now. We’re building a profile. We have done a lot of networking events, private parties, bridal showers. There are so many things that we can do. It is good to see that all the effort is starting to pay off.

I like that my business is in Ottawa, especially considering how much effort it took to get here. In general the system helps you here – in Bulgaria, it eats you. I think people in Ottawa should be very proud of what we have, that we can start business and have families and live in a beautiful city with no major hassles, as long as you are hard working and motivated.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Do you see yourself staying in Ottawa long-term?

Yes, I think so. I like Ottawa. Originally I was a little skeptical – it seemed small. But I’ve really seen it grow since I moved here, and I’ve realized that the party is where you make it. Fun can be anywhere, it just depends on you.

I’m starting to see Ottawa as a fun city. It depends on the energy of the people around you. I didn’t really discover that while I was in school, but once I was in the work force I got to know it better. I like partying – I’m not going to hide that! Sometimes my husband and I will take off for the weekend and go to Montreal for the clubs. I wish we could do it more often.

Recently I’ve been working on developing a new “musical religion,” which has helped me connect with my husband and the city in a new way. You know how sometimes people will do something for their partner that they might not do otherwise, like, for example, adopt a new religion? Well, about a year ago I decided I was going to change my musical religion. My husband is all about electronic music, and I’ve never really been into any kind of music. I decided I’d work on developing some knowledge and preference for that specific type of music so we could go to parties together. I think he appreciates it. It’s been very interesting – a different culture and style of partying. Anyway, it’s a whole new part of my life! I’m starting to learn that there is so much involved in musical cultures, and it’s helped me see Ottawa in a new way.

If I could change anything in Ottawa, I guess it would be parking. I’m the parking ticket queen. It’s something I’m really struggling with! Other than that, I think everything is fine. I have a pretty low standard to compare the city to, I guess. I come from a city that doesn’t have enough machines to clear the snow every winter. Here it’s very organized. Everything seems to be taken care of. We can always improve, but we also need to appreciate what we have.

We did your photos at your shop, Lilac Lingerie, and on Britannia Beach. Why are those important places to you?

I love water. Lakes, seas, oceans… I’ve always wanted to live near the ocean. If I need some time to think or clear my head, I go to Britannia Beach and look at the river. And, of course, the store is my life.

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Emilia! You can find Emilia on Twitter at @LilacLingerie, and please do visit http://www.lilaclingerie.ca/ for more information about her shop.

Sandy

Sandy Onyalo - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Sandy, Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre. The ORCC is a local organization that advocates for equitable communities and supports women who have experienced sexual violence.

Sandy and I met for her photos along the Rockcliffe Parkway, a route she drives daily as she commutes between her home in Orleans and downtown Ottawa. Read on to learn more about Sandy’s life in Ottawa, and the ORCC.

Sandy Onyalo - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

My name is Sandy, and I’m the Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre. I’ve worked there for 10 years. I have adult children who are all in their 20s, so we like to hang out. I like to read a lot, although there’s not a lot of time for it. I also like to do needlecraft - crochet, needlepoint, that sort of thing.

I was raised in Oshawa, but born in England. My mom came over to Canada because she got a nursing job in Oshawa. I went to elementary school and high school in Oshawa, and then I went to the University of Windsor and did a degree in Sociology and Criminology, and then to the University of Toronto for a certificate in Human Resources. I worked in Toronto for over 10 year, in the Public Health Department as a Community Development Worker. Coming to Ottawa was a little hard, because I loved Toronto. I love the craziness, how there were so many people, the crazy highways. I just loved it.

What brought you to Ottawa?

My partner got a job in Ottawa, so we decided as a family to move here. My partner and my kids moved here and I stayed in Toronto for a year to finish up some work. I travelled back and forth, which was challenging! I saw an ad in the paper – in those days they still had job ads in the paper! – for a Sexual Assault Network Coordinator. I got that position and did that for a couple of years, and then I moved to the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre. I’ve been there ever since.

What drew you to that?

It’s just real. I’ve found my interest is mainly in community work. Even in Toronto’s health department, we were a pretty unique group of development workers. It was interesting because we were doing a lot of grassroots work, but still part of this larger corporation. Most of my work has been in grassroots communities. I have lots memories of creating grant proposals or planning events at someone’s kitchen table, or in a living room. For example, in Toronto I did some work with a community on food access, and we organized big dinners for the community and the kids. It really keeps it real. It’s fun, and I really like doing it.

I like working in sexual violence because… well, to be honest, sometimes I’m like, “Ugh, what am I doing here? I should be sitting in a coffee shop sipping a latte, writing my memoirs.” But I like the challenge. There’s so much exciting work to do. For example, if you’re looking for research in the area of sexual violence, you really won’t find many Canadian perspectives, so I think there are some really exciting breakthroughs to be had in Canadian research alone. That really excites me. I do a lot of “paper pushing,” meaning administrative work. Sometimes I think that’s a deliberate strategy on the part of the government! You know, we can’t be strong activists because we have to spend all our time filling out so many forms. I spend so much time in front of my computer that when I finally get to go to a real-world event like a city council meeting it gives me a real shot of energy and purpose, like, “Okay, this is why I’m here.” And, I mean, there’s always a story to share of a sexual violence survivor that’s doing really well because of what we’re doing, and that’s a really motivating story to tell.

Now that you’re in Ottawa, what do you think of it?

Well, I don’t think I’d like to go back to Toronto. I go back to Toronto now for meetings, and I just feel overwhelmed by how many cars and people and billboards there are. The difference between Ottawa and Toronto, I think, is that there was a lot of thought put into the physical layout in Ottawa. There’s a lot of green space, parks, and bike paths in Ottawa. There has really been a lot of thought put into it. The beauty of the city really keeps me here. In the core of Toronto, you really don’t get that same physical beauty.

I also like the coziness of Ottawa. You get that big-city feel, but it’s a medium-sized city. So you can go out to the suburbs – I live out in Orleans – and feel cozy in the suburbs, but then I can go downtown and be in the city. I’ve dedicated myself to going to as many different restaurants as possible! I also love Canada Day, here. This is definitely the place to be on Canada Day. We never celebrated like that in Oshawa or Toronto, it just wasn’t the same thing.

Sandy Onyalo - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Can you tell me a little about what the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre does?

Yeah, for sure! So, the organization is 36 years old now. We’re in a confidential location, but it’s right downtown, so it’s pretty central. We have a 24-hour crisis line program that is operated by trained volunteers, supported by a coordinator. That’s our first line of contact. Then, we have a counselling program where we provide short-term crisis counselling. For example, if you were assaulted last night you could call the crisis line the next day and say that you needed to talk to someone. You can get up to six appointments. If after that you want longer-term counselling, we can offer up to 42 sessions. We also have a number of group therapy counselling sessions. We have a first and second stage group counselling – the first stage is usually about breaking down that isolation, where people share their stories and receive support. In the second stage, clients can take part in a variety of programs like art therapy, yoga, cooking classes, dance therapy, and sex and sexuality discussions, which are really popular.

We also have a public education program, which trains volunteers to talk about sexual harassment and abuse in schools, workplaces, high schools, universities, and colleges as well as at all kinds of events. We try to be very visible. The public education program is also responsible for things like connecting with the media, providing statistics, and research.

Domestic violence and sexual violence kind of split into two separate issues in the public conscience, and politically it’s more palatable for the government to deal with domestic violence publicly. Sexual violence has kind of fallen off of the political radar, off the table. One of our challenges is to increase the visibility of sexual violence, and get it on the same table as domestic violence. I think the aversion is related to the fact that sex is used as a weapon and there are so many different attitudes and approaches to sex, especially in a public forum. It gets all mixed up. We face a visibility issue, and a general acceptance issue.

We also deal with trying to break down a lot of myths. Sexual violence is the only violent crime where the victim is blamed. You know, “Why was she walking on the street at night? Why was she wearing that mini-skirt? Why was she drinking at the bar?” You don’t say or think those things about a man, you know? “Why was he drinking at the bar, or walking home at night? Wearing tight shorts?” That’s not a thing people are concerned about, but it’s always said about women. They’re really the only people who get blamed for the prevalence of sexual violence. We’re really trying to breakdown those myths, especially with young people. It seems that it doesn’t matter what age you are, the myths persist in general. So we want to kind of catch those misperceptions in young people.

One of the things we continue to struggle with is trying to meet the needs of women of colour, immigrant women, lesbians, trans women – we need to work with them from a different cultural perspective, and we need to do more outreach. What we’re learning is that most women who come to the centre are young women who have been recently assaulted, or women who were assaulted as a child and have some trauma that is surfacing as an adult. Most women who visit the centre are coming to us already seeking support and help, and they know what they’re getting – one-to-one, talk therapy, that sort of thing. But the women who come from more marginalized communities are dealing with so many other issues, like adjusting to a new environment, housing, jobs and many, many other issues, so their trauma surfaces in different ways. We’re trying to reach out to them and work with them in more culturally appropriate ways. As an organization, we’re still on the journey, trying to figure that out.

We also want to do more work with men - young men in particular. In the sexual violence field, we’ve really focused on providing services to victims – to the survivors. Those programs are very stable and widely recognized, so I think it’s time to address the other part of it – to start thinking about how we can offer strategic intervention for young men, and men in general, about their attitudes and behaviours when it comes to women. We’re on the cusp of figuring that out. I really think we’re not going to be able to put any sort of dent in eradicating sexual violence until we address the cause of the problem in some way.

How receptive do you think Ottawa is to issues surrounding sexual violence?

It’s very conservative here. Very different from Toronto. Toronto is a very activist city, with a lot of people who are really invested and connected to their causes. It was easy to just jump right into things in Toronto. In Ottawa, it’s a lot more conservative. I think people in Ottawa are very concerned about the issues, but their strategies are a lot slower. We also need to educate people here a lot more about the issues – especially surrounding sexual violence.

Has that influenced your own perception of Ottawa?

Well, when I first came to Ottawa it felt to me like people were really behind the times. So I was approaching it like, “Well, in Toronto we would have done it this way…” or, “In Toronto we would have done it that way…” I was really pushing the issues. Ottawa has been good for me, though. I’ve been learning that people are open to change, but it has to come slowly, and there has to be buy-in and it has to be within people’s comfort zones. It’s allowed me to slow down and work with people at their own speed. In the end, I think it’s just as enriching as if we were really fired up about it. But it’s a different pace here. It’s been good for me to slow down.

I think Ottawa needs to recognize the diversity of the city in a more proactive way. We talk about Ottawa as a really transient city, but then when you’re living here you realize that there are many, many people who have been living here for a really long time, and they’re rooted in Ottawa, or they’ve come from the outskirts to the inner city - but they’re rooted in the valley. There needs to be a greater recognition of the changing face of Ottawa, and how that infiltrates into programs and services, and especially employment. I think there’s a lot more work to do in terms of integrating newcomers and immigrants, and people of colour, and lesbians: the whole diversity of people really need to be more integrated into the city.

We did your photos along the Rockcliffe Parkway – why is that an important place for you?

Most mornings I drive down the Rockcliffe Parkway on my way to work. It’s so beautiful, and the changes of the seasons are really nice. It always looks different. I like seeing the water first thing in the morning. I get to kind of take a deep breath and feel calm before I get to work. The other nice thing I like about travelling down that road is that there are always country flags of visiting dignitaries, so I always get a reminder of who’s visiting Ottawa.

Sandy Onyalo - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Sandy! To find out more about the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, visit their website at http://orcc.net.

Colin

Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Meet Colin, an illustrator, cartoonist, and designer living in Ottawa. Colin is well known for his illustrations of Ottawa streetscapes and ‘comix’ depicting interactions he has with people living in the city. Right now – and through the month of June - Raw Sugar Café is hosting an exhibit of his work called Confectionaries, which is a collection of illustrations of corner stores in downtown Ottawa. The exhibit’s vernissage will be hosted at Raw Sugar on June 8th between 6:00 and 8:00PM.  To view Colin’s work, visit his websites at http://colinwhitestudio.ca and http://colinwhitecomix.ca. I definitely encourage you to take a look at my favourite of his comix, Cool Drawing, Dude, where Colin records the interactions he has with people who approach him on the street while he’s drawing streetscapes.

 For his photos, Colin and I walked around Chinatown to revisit many of the corner stores he illustrated for Confectionaries. Not only was it interesting to visit some of the little side streets and lesser-known corners of the city, but watching Colin interact with nearly everyone we came across was a fascinating peek into how his comix get made! Read on to find out what Colin thinks of Ottawa’s creative scene, and how his art has helped him fall for the city.

Colin White - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Tell me about yourself!

Okay. I’m an illustrator and designer based out of Ottawa. I do freelance work, and self-publish comix. The overarching theme throughout my life has been art, drawing, design, and self-publishing, even when I was a kid. I founded a local newspaper when I was 11 – I grew up on a dirt road, and the newspaper was called the The Goshen Report, after the name of the road. It went out to the locals, mainly, as well as my relatives. I had maybe 30 or 40 “subscribers,” and I did all of the reporting, designed the whole thing, and even “hired” my brother to do interviews. Thinking back, that was my first interest in self-publishing and putting myself out there. I was also pretty interested in cartooning my whole life, and I’m really into politics and the environment. I spend a lot of my time reading political stuff, which ends up influencing my work. A lot of my comix are influenced by politics.

Where are you from?

I grew up outside Ottawa, between Arnprior and Renfrew. Ottawa was the nearby city we’d go shopping in once in a while.

I didn’t think much of Ottawa, and in my early 20s I intentionally avoided it.  When I went to university I wanted to go to Toronto or Montreal, any big city. My impression of Ottawa was that it was just a government town without much to do. Everyone works for the government, or maybe in the tech industry, but other than that… you know.  I didn’t think of it as being filled with culture like Toronto or Montreal. Those were my thoughts before really spending any time in the city. I went and lived in Toronto, Montreal, and London, England, before I officially moved to Ottawa in 2006.

I was pleasantly surprised, I guess, to find that there is an underground or alternative scene in a city that I thought was really plain. You know, Ottawa’s large enough to sustain some interesting things – cafés, printing houses, galleries, all that sort of stuff, and there are people here with money to spend on it, who are aware of it and want to further culture in Ottawa. It’s at this breaking point right now where there is this legitimate underground scene that’s very organic, and it’s happening and growing because there’s room for it. Raw Sugar is a good example of that – it’s only existed for a couple of years, and it really filled a gap. There was a niche for it to fill – we didn’t have any place where you could chill out that was aesthetically pleasing, that put on shows, that had great communities built within and around them. It’s been successful, and most people seem to know about it. It’s nice to see these types of things happening, basically, and it’s nice to be directly involved in it.

I once heard someone refer to Ottawa – as far as arts and culture goes – as something like a “farm town” for Toronto, Montreal, and New York. You know in baseball where you’ve got the major leagues and the lesser teams play in smaller cities, but that’s where they source the good players? That’s maybe true of Ottawa’s arts and culture scene, but I feel like if went to, say, New York, I’d be lost in a sea of other illustrators. It would be hard to make a mark or find my place in the city. In Ottawa, the scene is really growing and you can be active and feel like you’re having an impact – it’s relatively easy if you put yourself out there and engage yourself. I think there’s a certain amount of city pride to that sentiment, but it’s completely genuine. It’s not pretentious – I’ve never felt like there was much pretension here. People just end up living here and fall in love with the city, and then they make their mark as best they can.

Colin White - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

So, how did you end up living here?

I was doing a Master’s degree in graphic design in London, England, and had some teaching positions lined up in the UK, but I had some visa complications and couldn’t extend my stay. I came back to Canada for Christmas, and everything just sort of fell through. I kind of ended up staying in Ottawa because I had nowhere else to be right then.

I was doing some freelance work for people in the Ottawa area, and I already knew so many people here, so I started looking for apartments in the city. The first day I saw three terrible apartments – one of them was 6 feet tall, and I’m six-foot-three! I was like: “$600 for this? This is crazy!” Later that day I bumped into my high school art teacher, and he mentioned that he was subletting his apartment. He’s an artist – he’s now retired and painting, and he had this apartment he had been using as a studio. One of the two bedrooms was a studio he used on weekday afternoons, and the rest of it he just rented out. That ended up being a really interesting place to live. I lived there for three years. It was a weird situation. He didn’t sleep there, but he worked there. We weren’t living together, but I was still sharing my apartment with my 60-year-old former high school art teacher. I kept a studio in the front room, and we had this great kind of teacher-student, father-son, art buddy-roommate situation going.

I didn’t anticipate staying in Ottawa when I moved here, but after the first year I was sold on the city. I was starting to realize that Ottawa is a cool city. It’s a good size, I can walk everywhere - I’m a big walker. In Toronto and London, you can kind of walk within boroughs, but you can’t walk from area to area effectively. Even in Montreal, you can’t get to everywhere you’d want to be in 45 minutes, which is kind of what you can do in downtown Ottawa.

I’ve been freelancing, and that sort of builds as well. You make connections, and that turns into regular work and clients and all that. So that’s how I came here. Not by choice in a way, just by circumstance. But I’m happy about it.

Do you think you’ll stay here?

I don’t have intentions to leave. I definitely would like to - at the very least - have Ottawa as a home base. I’d like to live in other cities for short durations and do contracts in other cities if that comes up – I’d very much be open to that. But right now my work is here, and many my friends are here, my girlfriend is here and we live together. Circumstances may change things, but let’s just say that I’m dedicated to Ottawa one way or another.

Colin White - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Can you tell me about your art and influences?

Well, the environment is a good start. Last year I started a series called Gigafauna – it’s imagery of ordinarily harmless animals, like snails, sparrows or mice, who have become giants and accidentally crush cities while they go about their day. We have had such an impact on the environment, and it may come back to bite us on the foot at some point. Gigafauna was inspired by that, but I also like a bit of humour so it’s a little whimsical.

Certainly what’s happening in the world - politics, religion, everything - ends up in some form or another in my comix. A lot of that comes out in comix that are more fantastical. One that I’m working on right now is called The Watering Hole, and it runs in X-Ray Magazine, which is based out of Ottawa. The Watering Hole focuses on a couple of woodland beavers who are very concerned about what’s happening in the world. I like that route because it’s a good way to critique these larger issues, but keep it light.

Stuff that happens in my life is something else that really influences me, and it often takes me in a different direction. The first summer I lived in Ottawa I spent a lot of time just walking around trying to get to know what was around me, and I wanted to practice drawing. I would just sit down and draw interesting buildings. Not necessarily tourist destinations, just regular places, like maybe a back alley or an industrial building. Inevitably someone would come up and talk to me – no matter what, no matter how remote an area, someone would ask me about what I was doing or engage me in conversation. The kind of people who randomly engage strangers in conversation on the street – there’s something about them. They’re interesting. They’re either charismatic, open, interested in meeting someone new, or - on the other end of the spectrum - they’re off their meds. I was approached by so many interesting people that I just started documenting them, writing down our conversations and making comics out of them. It’s like reporting little day-to-day stuff – the small things. So, you know, sometimes I’m drawing snails running over cities, and sometimes I’m just drawing the city. I’ve got a balcony, and sometimes I just draw the people walking by below.

I find the aesthetics of cities really interesting. I really like telephone poles - those old wooden ones with all the stuff on them. That’s often been a theme in my drawings. Fire escapes, side alleys – a little dirty, a little grungy – that sort of thing. There are a lot of places in Ottawa that appeal to me, so I draw them.

Colin White - Photo by Anne Patterson/HelloOttawa.ca

Thank you, Colin! Be sure to check out Colin’s work at http://colinwhitestudio.ca and http://colinwhitecomix.com, and stop by Raw Sugar Café any time in June to see the Confectionaries series in person. Colin can also be found on Twitter at @colinwhite, and on Facebook at Colin White Comix.

Alexandra

Meet Alexandra, a public librarian and runner who’s originally from Montreal. While she’s normally one of the happy faces greeting the public at the Rideau branch of the Ottawa Public Library, for the next few months she’ll be working as the Coordinator of Diversity and Accessibility Services with OPL. Alex shares her experiences and thoughts on being a librarian in Ottawa on her blog, Only Connect.

Can you tell me about yourself?

Okay. I’m Alexandra, and I’m a Public Librarian. I grew up in and around Montreal. My parents are actually both priests in the Anglican Church, so we moved around a couple of times to different communities around the Greater Montreal Area when I was young; we did four or five major moves. Finally, I went to McGill and settled in downtown Montreal. I moved to Ottawa four years ago, and I’ve been working for the Ottawa Public Library since then. Before that, I was working for libraries in Montreal. My first degree was in English Lit, though, so I have a love of books that you would hope would be essential in a librarian!

I read a lot. Not just for work – I think I read something like 50 or 60 novels a year. I also run, which is something I picked up from my husband. I was never athletic as a kid – I was always picked last for every team. I love it, though. It’s something that I can just get up and do without any special equipment or an appointment with a trainer or anything – you can just do it. It’s also been a great way to get to know the city. I’ve run up and down the canal, by the rivers, over to the Quebec side. Often when I’m talking to community partners or friends, someone will mention a place and I can usually say, “Oh, I think I ran by that once!” It’s really helped me get to know the city.

What brought you to Ottawa?

My job. After doing my Masters in Library Studies, I had a couple of part-time library jobs: one in a public library, one in an academic library, and one in a school. I was toying around with what I wanted to do. I eventually decided I did want to work in public libraries - I ended up stringing together a series of mat-leave positions. That gets hard. After I had done the second mat-leave position, I thought, well, I can’t keep this up. I had some other concerns, too – public libraries in Quebec are very different from public libraries in Ontario.  Because the Catholic Church had such control over culture in general – but especially over books and reading – until the 1960s in Quebec, public libraries aren’t as established there as they are in Ontario. In Ontario, the Public Library Act, I think, was established in the 1890s, whereas Quebec didn’t have one until the 1950s. So Quebec is really just catching up in a lot of ways. I felt like I was really pushing against a wall, and wasn’t able to do a lot of the things I wanted to do. it will take time for the public library structure to be fully established, there.

I had a friend who lived in Ottawa already, so it was a relatively easy choice to move here. Ottawa has a great public library system in that it’s bilingual, and that was a plus for me. I wanted to continue to use my French, and Ottawa’s not too far from home.

What made you decide to go into Library Science?

I grew up in a household that had a lot of books. My parents were big fiction readers, in addition to reading a lot of theology. So my house was full of books, and I had a great aunt who spoiled me rotten with books as a child. Also, though, as I finished my English Lit degree, I was doing an honours thesis about cross-cultural connections. It was about E.M. Forster, and connections between different genders and class structure in England, so I was starting to think about how education is kind of an equalizer for people. The Public Library, in particular – I mean, the tag line for the public library is “The People’s University,” and I felt that very strongly. I really wanted to work in an environment that really could be The People’s University. Anyone can come in and ask a question, pursue a research topic, or, you know, do some leisure reading, pick up a hobby, learn about a new world or different culture, and make some kind of connection.

Now that you’re working as a librarian, have your views on the field changed?

I still feel really strongly that libraries are about connections. One thing that I would say to anyone considering a library degree is: it’s not all about books. I don’t know if I really realized how right I was when I was thinking about entering Library Science for the first time. It really is about creating connections – in a community setting, anyway. In an academic setting, it’s a little different. In public libraries, you’re really a community partner or a community builder. It’s a hub, and as a librarian you’re really trying to reach out and make connections with different groups in the community and say, hey, here’s a place where you can learn, or spend some quiet time and read. You can get away from your six siblings, or your husband or wife, or whatever’s going on at home. Or, here’s a nice clean and dry place where you can spend some time and no one’s going to ask you If you’re going to order something or why you haven’t bought anything yet. It really serves as that “third place” – you know, a place away from home and work, where you can go and just chill.

I think it’s pretty much what I expected, but you do have to be more of a people-person than I think most people think librarians have to be. I think our profession really attracts people who are introverted - and that’s okay! - but we don’t get enough people who are also able to advocate on the behalf of their profession or workplace, and that’s very important for libraries these days, I think.

The Ottawa Public Library has been in the news a little bit recently over the proposed redesign – do you have any thoughts about that?

Well, the thing about public libraries is that they’re really reflections of what’s going on in the wider community. Ottawa is, in many ways, trying to figure out exactly what it is as a city. The issues with the Ottawa Public Library are really part of that whole central debate. It’s an interesting time for the city. The new central library would be a place for imagination and inspiration in the downtown core. Meanwhile, there are some other major physical changes happening downtown – the new congress centre, figuring out what’s going on at Lansdowne. These are architectural questions, but they’re also identity questions. What kind of city do we want to be? What importance do we place on cultural venues, and where do they have a place in the city? Downtown? In the suburbs? Both? How does that work? I think we’re really going through growing pains as a city. We’ll get through it and reach a decision, though.

Coming from Montreal, which is a city that merged and then de-merged, it was really interesting to move to Ottawa, because it seems like an example of a great amalgamation success story. Councillor Jan Harder, who is the head of the library board, often says that Libraries are the success stories of amalgamation. I think that’s very true: we have 33 branches and two bookmobiles, and we’re the third biggest library system in the country. That’s really exciting, but it does mean that any project we undertake is that much more complicated because we have to take all of those perspectives into consideration.

How do you feel about it? What would your ideal Ottawa library system be?

I think it would be a mix of urban and rural. I’m a downtown person at heart, and I think a new central library would be a really emblematic place that people could visit as a resource for the whole community, but also as a cultural hub. A place for people to meet, where people feel inspired, can get a coffee or do some research, and find out about the city’s history.

Now that you’re here in Ottawa, do you see yourself staying here?

I think so. It’s a nice city with a lot to offer. Like I said, it’s a city in transition, so I’m looking forward to seeing how things turn out. There’s a really nice mixture of urban and rural. It’s easy to get away from the city – you know, to get to Gatineau, or even just along the canal. There are great options for people starting families. I think I’ll stay. I’m still homesick for Montreal, though. When I left, I was sitting on my kitchen floor crying as I was packing. It was really hard for me. It does help that I’m close, though.

It took me a long time to get to know Ottawa. I’m still in the process, I think, even though I’ve been here for four years. I have learned some stuff, but I think Ottawa has a little bit of an impenetrable shell sometimes. It gets a lot of flack for being a government city and stuff, but it does have it’s own personality – it’s just a little harder to find.

We did you photos at the Minto Bridges near old city hall. Why is that an important place for you?

It’s one of my favourite places in the city. It was one of the first runs I took when I moved here. I went to the Rideau Falls and crossed over the Minto bridges, and it was one of the first times I thought, “I could live here, I guess it’s okay!” It’s kind of a special corner for me.

Thanks, Alex! Be sure to check out Alex’s blog, Only Connect, which is a really interesting exploration of Ottawa’s library system and life as a librarian. Alex is also running in the Ottawa Race Weekend half-marathon in support of Medic to Medic, which supports trainee health workers who are in financial need – you can find out how to support her run here.