When the Board of Urban Circle Training Centre decided the innovative Selkirk Avenue employment preparation organization needed to address the child care needs of its students, Elder Stella Blackbird had a vision.
She saw it as an opportunity to return to the traditional Aboriginal way of raising children, where multiple generations formed strong family units.
“When our people lived in harmony, everything was done with family,” she says. “We did all our own child-rearing. Then all the treaties were imposed on us. We went to residential school and all our teachings were gone. My age group was the one that lost parenting.”
Now, Makoonsag Intergenerational Child Centre, which opened this spring, is helping make Blackbird’s vision a reality. From its physical structure to its programming, the Centre has been designed to bring families and community together. A round central room, reminiscent of a sweat lodge, will be used for ceremonies with Elders, events for families and community outreach. (It also doubles as a cozy space for nap time.) Low walls in play areas make the space open, airy and conducive to interaction.
“We didn’t want closed-in walls,” explains Blackbird. “It’s a family setting where you can see each other and have the Elders visible. It’s our traditional way. In a tipi there was always a family unit – you ate together, you slept in the same place. It was that closeness that we lost.”
The location, adjacent to Urban Circle’s campus, makes it easy for students to visit their children between classes and eat lunch together.
The Centre is a boon in a neighbourhood where such resources have been extremely limited, explains Eleanor Thompson, one of Urban Circle’s founders and current Director of Development.
“We do a needs assessment with the students and every year [they ask for] on-site, accessible child care,” says Thompson. She adds that the lack of child care “was a real barrier to students’ ability to enroll and to stay in their educational program.” She describes students who would take the bus to drop their children off at two or three different daycares on their way to school every day.
Child care is a common need in the area, which is now booming with adult students, thanks to several successful programs that have set up shop on Selkirk Avenue in recent years.
About 150 Aboriginal students attend Urban Circle’s holistic vocational training to become educational assistants, health care aides and apprentices. Another 300 students are enrolled with the Inner City Social Work program at the William Norrie Centre down the street. The University of Winnipeg offers Urban and Inner City Studies classes at its North End campus, located below Makoonsag. And, Makoonsag itself is part of the education continuum – it’s a demonstration site for Red River College’s Early Childhood Education program.
These programs – along with a variety of social services agencies and committed residents – are bringing new life to a neighbourhood that has been plagued by poverty, crime and despair.
“There’s a real educational hub developing here on Selkirk Avenue,” says Thompson, who sees education as key for individuals and families overcoming poverty. “The neighbourhood is experiencing a rebirth right now and it’s really an exciting time for our community here.”
That rebirth is generating new government investment, collaborations between social services and opportunities for area residents.
“Statistically, it is one of the poorest areas in Canada, but it has amazing resources,” Thompson says.
One of those resources, Makoonsag is bringing joy and healing to the community. When Stella Blackbird walks into the building, she feels a positive change.
“I become very happy, it’s an awakening sort of feeling,” she says. “I was never allowed to be a child. That free spirit the little ones have – for me to know that they’re not going to be ashamed of who they are – it’s a wonderful experience.”
This article was originally published in Working Together — A Magazine of The Winnipeg Foundation. To download the Fall 2012 edition, click on http://cms.tng-secure.com/file_download.php?fFile_id=23061