How ‘ lit­tle bears’ de­fied the odds

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - THIS CITY - By Ela­dia Smoke

THIS place saves lives. Happy sounds of chil­dren fill it up: There are sto­ries, fam­ily work­shops, naps and play­ing. The Spirit Room at Makoon­sag In­ter­gen­er­a­tional Learn­ing Cen­tre is where chil­dren get a solid start by learn­ing from par­ents, staff and el­ders. As elder Stella Black­bird said early in the de­sign process, “Ev­ery­one learns from each other.” Many of the par­ents take cour­ses at the Ur­ban Cir­cle Train­ing Cen­tre next door, al­low­ing them to spend the day here and have lunch and breaks as a fam­ily.

Makoon­sag means “lit­tle bears” in Cree. Black­bird’s vi­sion of the Spirit Room was a domed struc­ture, in­spired by the tra­di­tional sweat lodge. Curved wood beams form the ribs of the room, joined to a cir­cu­lar beam at the ceil­ing. In be­tween th­ese ribs are slats of wood to give the space a warm, com­fort­able feel. Small lights dot the curved ceil­ing like stars. My good friend and col­league, David Thomas, and his fa­ther put to­gether the lit­tle- bear mo­saic in the cen­tre of the floor, spend­ing many late nights laugh­ing and tiling.

This day­care de­fied the odds. The neigh­bour­hood of Wil­liam Whyte is sta­tis­ti­cally the most trou­bled area in the city. How­ever, there’s a wealth of pos­i­tive ac­tiv­ity and a pas­sion and hope for the fu­ture. In early plan­ning meet­ings, we dis­cussed how to deal with the project’s lo­ca­tion, at the time, right next door to the Mer­chants Ho­tel — an in­fa­mous place that used to at­tract vi­o­lence. Black­bird had faith that if the com­mu­nity re­claimed this place, things would change. Just be­fore Makoon­sag’s grand open­ing on May 31, 2012, the Mer­chants Ho­tel closed its doors for good. A month ear­lier, Pre­mier Greg Selinger an­nounced plans for a new com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment with hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and busi­ness. Thanks to the tire­less work of peo­ple like Ur­ban Cir­cle’s di­rec­tor of de­vel­op­ment Eleanor Thomp­son and or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the North End Com­mu­nity Re­newal Cor­po­ra­tion, this space is now safe for kids, mainly be­cause that is what the com­mu­nity it­self de­manded.

Small touches make this place my favourite spot in the whole city. The play yard, de­signed by McGowan Rus­sell land­scape ar­chi­tects, uses na­tive plants to make a nat­u­ral play- scape that mim­ics the same fun ex­pe­ri­ences of a nat­u­ral meadow. The an­gled northsouth line of the paths con­tin­ues right through the build­ing, hon­our­ing each of the four di­rec­tions that have a mean­ing in First Na­tions teach­ings. Sky­lights along the north- south line bring day­light in from up high and de­fine the open cor­ri­dors that make the whole day­care feel like one space. The Spirit Room is the heart of the build­ing. It sits in­de­pen­dently — a lodge within a lodge.

The build­ing it­self has a rich his­tory on Selkirk Av­enue. The orig­i­nal foun­da­tions from the small house on the north side of Selkirk Av­enue are still there. In 1921, there was an ad­di­tion to make a neigh­bour­hood gro­cery store that stayed in busi­ness un­til the 1950s. In 1966, then- owner Misha Pol­lock ex­panded his chil­dren and menswear store. I can per­son­ally at­test that with each part built dif­fer­ently, bring­ing them all to­gether in one de­sign wasn’t easy. Prairie Ar­chi­tects Inc. worked closely with the steer­ing com­mit­tee and held col­lab­o­ra­tive de­sign ses­sions and an open house to fig­ure out what would work best in the new day­care. The fi­nal prod­uct was great, but my favourite part was lis­ten­ing to sto­ries from all the peo­ple who lived and worked nearby.

My own in­volve­ment with this site started in 2004. My ar­chi­tec­tural the­sis in­volved sev­eral years of com­mu­nity re­search on what were then va­cant lots be­hind Makoon­sag, where the nat­u­ral play yard is now. I was de­sign­ing stu­dent hous­ing, but all the women said, “We need a day­care first.” That’s ex­actly what’s hap­pened. Many of the same team mem­bers who worked so hard on Makoon­sag are now in the plan­ning stages to con­vert the old Mer­chants Ho­tel into a pos­i­tive com­mu­nity hub. The lit­tle Spirit Room and the chil­dren grow­ing up in­side it are just start­ing to weave their en­ergy through the neigh­bour­hood.

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