Winnipeg’s Kyle J Mason and the North End Family Centre
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Kyle Mason is of Ojibway and Métis descent and is the son of two residential school survivors. He is the founder of the North End Family Centre, which has been a gathering place for North End families to connect and be empowered since 2008. In June 2017, after nearly a decade as the Director of the North End Family Centre, Mason made the difficult decision to make a shift in his career and move on, “passing the torch” and the responsibility of running the North End Family Centre to new staff.
2018 has been a year of change and of taking on new challenges. Mason is no longer involved in the North End Family Centre in an official capacity, but remains a donor, mentor and volunteer. SAY was thrilled to sit down with Mason to find out more about his life, his new endeavors and how the North End Family Centre came to be.
Here is his story
Raised in a single-family home by his mother, Mason grew up with his brother and sister primarily in Winnipeg’s North End. He has few memories of his father, but he does remember his father always pushing him and his siblings to be the best they could be. He also recalls his father as a successful business man. They lived a prosperous life during his younger years, but everything changed after a family vacation to Edmonton, Alberta, when Mason was eight years old.
“I remember having fun, going on rides and shopping, but then a strange thing happened. We didn’t come back with my father. It was the end of my parents’ relationship. After he left, I remember life rapidly changing. The houses were gone, toys were gone and the next thing I recall is my sister, me, my brother and my mother all living in a two-bedroom suite in someone else’s house. Life was just night and day.”
For many years, Mason and his family moved around a lot, and at times they lived with friends and family to avoid homelessness. “All of a sudden we found ourselves sitting around the kitchen table praying to make ends meet. As a child, I didn’t know how to process this.”
As years past, things got better. Mason’s mother worked hard to complete her high school diploma and attain a degree in social work, all while working and raising three kids. “She was trying to make a better life for us, and she did,” said Mason. Mason’s mother eventually bought a house, and the family moved out of the North End.
After completing high school, Mason planned on working for a year before pursuing his post-secondary education. One year turned into three, and, like many young people, he was lacking drive and focus. He was stuck and looking for a place to belong. Unlike his peers, he found a sense of community and belonging in his local church youth group in the North End.
“I became a church nerd and attended youth conferences and volunteered a lot. The pastors in the church ended up playing a big role in my life. Some became father figures and role models for me.”
Mason eventually pursued his studies and graduated from Eston College in Saskatchewan, Canada, with a degree in biblical studies with plans of becoming a youth and young adult pastor, much like the pastors who had impacted his life. While studying at Eston, Mason met and fell in love with his wife Arlene. The pair married during his final year of schooling and then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Mason worked at a church in Stonewall, Manitoba and where he soon found out he was not quite wired to be a pastor like he
had planned. “It came as a huge shock and disappointment to me because I had spent years dreaming to do this and studied years to do this,” said Mason. “Thankfully, I was offered an opportunity as the Director with the Dryden Food Bank (Ontario, Canada) which was a lot of hard work but an incredible growing experience for me as a professional.”
Under his leadership, the food bank grew from a small organization renting a small space to becoming the largest organization of its kind in the region.
New in their marriage and new in their careers, the couple found out they were expecting and made all the preparations in anticipation of their first child. Life changed drastically when the couple experienced the heart wrenching loss of their daughter. “No one saw it coming. It rocked us. It shook us to our core,” said Mason.
Heartbroken, and with life not making sense anymore, they resigned from their positions in Dryden and sought comfort with family in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “My wife took time off from working, and I took a job where I could punch in and punch out. We spent time grieving and trying to figure out what life was all about. We were very raw,” explained Mason.
After a year, the couple decided it was time to restart their careers and learn how to live after the loss of their daughter. They moved to Winnipeg after Mason’s wife was offered a government job in her field, and, oddly enough, the couple moved into the same neighbourhood in the North End, on the same street, three blocks down from where Mason grew up.
It was at that time that Mason decided he wanted to start something - do something in the community where he grew up. “The North End is a beautiful neighbourhood filled with thousands upon thousands of good people who want the best for themselves and their families just like anyone else, anywhere else,” said Mason.
After completing large amounts of research, it was clear that a part of Winnipeg’s North End was dramatically underserviced. A series of community meetings and discussions with people in the community, including elected officials, not-for-profit leaders and religious leaders in the neighbourhood led to what is now known as the North End Family Centre – its name descriptive of the population it serves.
The North End Family Centre opened its doors on Main Street in a 1000 square foot facility in 2008, with no money and no government grants during the largest economic recession of our time. “It was a small army of people, team members and donors who built up the Family Centre,” said Mason.
After nearly a decade in operation, the North End Family Centre now operates out of a 3000 square foot facility and serves approximately 1500 members a month.
Mason is now the Director of Development for the Lung Association of Manitoba, and he recently launched his own private consulting firm which continues to enable him to reach communities through speaking engagements and community development opportunities, while aiding in reconciliation efforts. Over the last decade, Mason is thankful to have reconciled with his father, building a strong relationship over time. Mason and Arlene are also the proud parents of a four-yearold boy. “He is smart and kind. He is perfect and keeps us happily exhausted. We are absolutely enjoying every minute of being able to parent,” said Mason.
I’m a firm believer in “nothing for us, without us”. It was my mantra while forming the North End Family Centre.
Here are a few more fun facts about Kyle Mason that you might not already know.
SAY: Tell us a little more about your family background.
Mason: My father’s side is Ojibway from Peguis First Nation - descendants from Chief Peguis himself. In fact, my family has been around longer than the province of Manitoba. And what some people might not know is that Chief Peguis was one of the first Chiefs to convert to Christianity back when European settlers were here, and as a result he took ownership of a bible which has been passed down through generations to where I am now the keeper and protector of the bible. I am having it restored professionally to its best shape possible, and hopefully later this year it will be on display in the Manitoba Museum.
On my mother’s side, I am Métis from Manigotagan, Manitoba. My Métis roots go far back into the province’s history, and my grandfather and his wife were co-founders of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
SAY: Who has been one of the most influential people in your life thus far?
Mason: Lauren Miller. When I was at Eston College he was the president at the time and took me under his wing. If it wasn’t for his mentorship, friendship and the occasional kick in the butt, I wouldn’t be the leader and the man I am today. He really helped me mature and helped me learn how to think.
SAY: What does the North End Family Centre mean to you?
Mason: It’s part of the community where I live. It’s a place of belonging where there is no judgement - a space for people and families to think beyond their current circumstance or environment, especially if they are struggling in life. It is there to help people find success, no matter what that looks like – it’s different for everyone. It is the type of place that I needed when I was young.
SAY: You have identified how important your faith is to you. How does your faith influence your life?
Mason: I was raised as a Christian, and I choose to follow the teachings of Jesus. It is something that is very core to my being and has evolved a lot over the last ten years of my life. I was raised to feel that I had to either be Indigenous or Christian. I now realize that is not the case. I am now a proud Ojibway-Metis man who follows culture, traditions and ceremonies, and I am also a follower of Jesus. I have learned that the two are not at odds with each other, but they actually enrich each other and work well together. I feel much more whole as a person when I am able to be my Indigenous self and follow the teachings of Jesus.
SAY: What do you want your legacy to be?
Mason: When my days on this planet come to an end, I hope I will be known as my son’s father. My biggest gift is my son he is my legacy and the seventh generation of Chief Peguis.
In January 2013, Mason received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for founding and leading the North End Family Centre. In March 2015, Mason was chosen as a CBC Manitoba Future 40 leader, which highlighted leaders from different sectors who are making a difference in Manitoba. In the summer of 2017, Mason was awarded a Community Hero Award by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Mason was also selected to participate in the prestigious 2017 Governor General Canadian Leadership Conference.
For more information, or to contact Kyle Mason, please visit www.kylejmason.ca.