Thunderbird House gets needed upgrades while serving as COVID-19 testing site

By | July 29, 2020

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, at the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, 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 building reopened 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 fixes to the sprinkler and security systems, plumbing, doors, air conditioning, windows and lighting.

“We even did a little bit of painting,” Johnston said. “In fact, I did some myself.”

All told, he estimates about $13,000 in cash and services helped spruce up the place.

Damon Johnston is president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and a member of the Thunderbird House board. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, End Homelessness Winnipeg and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre pitched in to help cover costs.

The WRHA footed the $7,500 bill for a covering that went over the hardwood floor to protect 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, said Johnston.

Challenges over the years

The distinctive building has served as a welcoming space for gatherings and traditional ceremonies since 2000, when Métis activist and politician Mary Richard helped found Thunderbird House based on a vision of healing, said Johnston.

But it’s faced financial hardships over the years, including debt and a previous lien on the building. It also lost its charitable status in 2015 and struggled to secure supplies after its bank accounts were frozen by the Canada Revenue Agency.

Thunderbird House needed roof repairs a couple years ago. (Frances Koncan)

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 welcome 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.

“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.

While Thunderbird House’s transition to a testing site has provided access to COVID-19 tests for vulnerable people in the neighbourhood, it also meant OPK had to find other places to conduct its outreach work, including its weekly men’s healing group, Bourbonniere said.

So the group teamed up with Healing Together, one of the other groups that rents Thunderbird House space.

Mitch Bourbonniere, left, is an outreach worker with Ogijita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin. Jonathan Henderson, right, is co-founder of Healing Together. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Co-founder Jonathan Henderson said the groups decided to start working together, handing out water and food to people on the streets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

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.

The ceremonies have also piqued the curiosity of some observers, he said.

“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 is excited to get back into Thunderbird House.

But 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, the board has enlisted a lawyer to join its ranks and is working with a local consultant on a long-term business plan to ensure Thunderbird House is sustainable moving forward.

The board also recently appointed a new executive director, and secured funds through the Winnipeg Foundation to help pay for her salary for three years.

Johnston said the repairs and other changes happening internally mean Thunderbird House will soon get back to the original vision of 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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