An Indigenous cultural hub that transformed into a COVID-19 test site in Winnipeg’s core will emerge from the pandemic in better shape than when coronavirus arrived in Manitoba.
Thunderbird House has juggled financial, programming and infrastructure struggles over the years, but its location offered a way to ensure homeless people in the area had access to COVID-19 testing.
Regular ceremonial programming had already come to a halt or gone online by the time the Higgins Avenue and Main Street building re-opened as a test site in mid-May.
But a number of things needed to be fixed before that conversion could happen, said a Thunderbird House board member.
Damon Johnston, who is also president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, said a list of repairs were made to help get the space up to code, including repairs to the sprinkler and security system, plumbing, doors, air conditioning, windows and lighting. It even got a fresh coat of paint.
“We wanted to clean the place up a little bit,” said Damon Johnston. “We even did a little bit of painting — in fact I did some myself.”
Some The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, End Homelessness Winnipeg and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness pitched in to help cover costs.
The WRHA foot the bill for a $7,500 covering that went over the hardwood floor to preseve it from added foot traffic in the space, a spokesperson with the health authority confirmed.
A small number of tenants renting office space at Thunderbird House were displaced when it was converted as well, so End Homelessness Winnipeg pitched in to cover the $20,000 to $25,000 per month in lost rental revenue costs, said Johnston.
All told, he estimates about $13,000 in cash and services helped spruce up the place.
Challenges over the years
Metis activist and politician Mary Richard helped found Thunderbird House in 2000 based on a vision of healing, said Johnston.
The distinctive building has served as a welcoming space for gatherings and traditional ceremonies, but it’s faced financial hardships over the years.
It struggled with debt and a previous lien on the building. The board had to cut back on some programming last year.
The cultural hub lost its charitable status in 2015 and struggled to secure supplies after its bank accounts were frozen by the Canada Revenue Agency.
The organization has paid off some of its debt since then, but aspects of the physical space had fallen into disrepair.
The new repairs are welcomed news to two of groups displaced when Thunderbird House turned into a COVID-19 test site.
“It had a lot of needs right when we were leaving at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Mitch Bourbonniere, an outreach worker with Ogijita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin (OPK).
“It just needed some TLC.”
OPK is an Indigenous service volunteer group in the inner-city that supports young people experiencing challenges stemming from poverty, trauma and social issues. The group typically rents out space at Thunderbird House,
Bournonniere said OPK welcomed the takeover of Thunderbird House at the outset, seeing it as a needed assist to vulnerable people in the neighbourhood who would have access to COVID-19 testing.
But it meant the group had to find ways to conduct its outreach work elsewhere, including its weekly mens’ healing group.
So they teamed up with one of the other groups that rents out space in Thunderbird House, Healing Together.
Co-founder Jonathan Henderson said the groups decided to start working together. They began handing out water and food to people on the streets every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
They also started holding their men’s groups together outside at Oodena Circle at The Forks every Sunday at 5 p.m., where men take part in smudge ceremonies and come together to share.
“It’s been a wonderful experience to overcome obstacles that this pandemic presented us,” said Henderson.
“We have a lot of observers now too; they see us conducting our ceremonies here and it perks a little curiosity. It’s actually brought out some more men to our group to come join us on SUndays which is an unexpected benefit.”
Bourbonniere said he’s happy the pandemic brought the two groups together and excited to get back into Thunderbird House in the future.
It’s not entirely clear when that will be. The building will remain a testing site until at least December, said Johnston.
‘Pathway to sustainability’
In the meantime, Johnston sees another silver lining of the pandemic. While the space has operated as a testing site, it’s given the board time to brainstorm a path forward for Thunderbird House.
The board recently enlisted a lawyer to join its ranks and is working with a local consultant on a long-term business plan to ensure Thunderbird House can remain sustainable moving forward.
The board also recently appointed a new executive director, and secured funds through the Winnipeg Foundation to help pay for three years of her salary.
Johnston said the repairs and other changes happening internally mean Thunderbird House will soon get back to Mary Richard’s founding vision of restoring a space intended for healing.
“The struggle has always been … to find that pathway to sustainability, and unfortunately we haven’t got there yet, but you don’t give up,” he said. “Does the place have value? Absolutely. Maybe more today than it did when it was built … so we have no doubt in our minds, in our hearts, that we need to do this.”
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