blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


The word means "New Beginnings" and refers to "the dark moment before dawn, when magic happens."

Our Diplomatic Hospitality Group was welcomed to the new Wabano Centre on Montreal Road with a joyful chant, sung by three young women and a man to the beat of a drum, "the heartbeat of Mother Earth." Carlie Chase, Director of Initiatives (on the left in my photo), said, "We want you to get to know us and our culture, not just the building. You can help to tell our story of what's here."

People call it a health centre but there is no word for health in the aboriginal languages, because their word meaning "good life" encompasses emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as pride in one's heritage and a sense of belonging (prosperity was not mentioned).  "A long, long time ago," said Bruce, "the Creator gave us four different medicines." He held them up and passed them around, to show us: sage, sweet grass, tobacco and cedar. Sweetgrass grows all over North America and has a purple root. They braid it for various purposes. Cedar leaves are used to make a tea full of vitamin C that has been used as a cure for scurvy. Tobacco is their ceremonial incense, used when making a prayerful request from other people or from Mother Earth.

We were introduced to the Smudge cleansing ritual, reminiscent of what happens at the incense burners in Buddhist temples. The sacred herbs are burned in a shell, a symbol of water, and the smoke fanned towards the supplicant with a feather, representing the wind, so that she can pull it across her head, her ears and eyes, and breathe it in, thus taking away negativity and encouraging kind thoughts. It "reminds us to be quiet." Silence is important in the aboriginal way of life. "We don't have a religion. There's no dogma. We only offer what's needed."

The coloured dome of the building, yellow, red, black and white, represents a medicine wheel and also stands for the different races of the world's people, the colours of their skins. Preventative medicine is a basic principle of indigenous culture: "You are to reflect the beauty that you see around you. That's the teaching!" The medicine wheel also shows the four stages of life, which "don't divide; they connect." Therefore on Wabano's Cultural Nights "... seniors, youth and everyone are together. It's a little chaotic."

By contrast, Carlie Chase was critical of mainstream Canadian society that's "set up in silos."

The Montreal Road Wabano Centre has enough room for a reception of 500 people, exhibition space, a rooftop garden where traditional medicines will be grown and used for teaching, a sewing centre where women can use industrial-strength machines and take sewing classes, a catering business, likewise offering people the chance to learn employable skills, a medical clinic, youth programs, day care for young children, mental health and homelessness care, and a "maternal wellness" centre. While we were there we saw a very young baby being carried home, after a check-up. Since 1998 the Wabano health care providers have been helping to deal with the marginalised people in our city. Bruce, for example, had spent 11 years locating and helping homeless aboriginals on the streets. At present they have a 6-member outreach team for the homeless and a team visiting vulnerable seniors as well.

The Conflict Between Good And Evil
Contrary to popular perception, the federal government does not fund this work because it happens "off-reserve" and it surprised most of our group to hear that 70% of First Nations people in Canada do not live on reserves. In fact more than half of these people come to the cities for the sake of jobs or education, but often find themselves "blocked" (as Carlie put it) because when they arrive they have no idea how to use the buses, the health system, etc. and have to be helped. Wabano's mission is to break down the barriers. In Canadian schools indigenous culture is only taught as an optional (elective) subject and even then, not until Year 11, so non-aboriginal Canadians tend to be ignorant, prejudiced. Police and social services personnel and the general public are encouraged to come to the Centre and learn.

The federal and provincial governments contributed $2.3 million each to the building project, but a further $9.6 million was required. The star blanket tile design on the floor of the Fire Hall, where individual tiles are being donated for $200 each, is part of this fundraising campaign. $400,000 has been raised so far, and by renting parts of the building to visitors for meetings and celebrations such as weddings, more money will be made. The board room is an impressive place for meetings, with tongues of flame on the table.

"Fire" in the board room
The architect Douglas Cardinal intended the building to be symbolic; it is on four levels. The earth floor is the basement where children are cared for. Water, represented by a blue floor and glass or glazed surfaces, is where the new mothers go for guidance (women are traditionally the keepers of water). The reception area up a curved flight of steps is inspired by fire (the community) and above that is "the sky world, where all is possible" on Level 4. We were taken up to the top of the building in groups and peered through the windows of a classroom where women were being taught to make quilts. In the corridor, pictures of "the Seven Grandfather Teachings" were hung displaying Wabano's core values: Humility, Truth, Honesty, Love, Bravery, Respect and Wisdom. Again, I was reminded of Asian culture.

We were shown inside the washrooms, even the Gents', decorated with wampum belts. The Ladies' featured a strawberry mosaic, strawberries representing the heart.

Pictures and artefacts like the heron sculpture (standing for provision and patience) or the feather head-dress gave us further insights. A corn husk mat hung in the main hall. During winter the women of the family would braid corn husks together, a laborious task, and tell the story of how the Sky Woman brought corn, beans and squash to Mother Earth.

Andrea decorating a stick
While one group was touring the premises, the rest of us could help ourselves to coffee and bannocks and decorate "talking sticks" in the Fire Hall. This was to demonstrate how family therapy worked. The idea is that (s)he who holds the stick is the one who may talk. (Sometimes a feather, antler or rock is used for this purpose.) The others must listen, because, as Bruce says, "When jaws are wagging, ears don't hear." When a troubled family comes to the Centre each member of that family has to contribute "something dear to their hearts" with which to decorate their communal talking stick. Our Diplomatic Hospitality members each took home such a stick. I decorated mine with a foil cone on a strip of leather, some red embroidery thread, three plaited coloured ribbons with beads, larger glass beads, a strip of fur and a feather. Some of the others were more flamboyant!

Finally it was time to "complete the circle" and finish with a Circle Dance around the star on the floor, everyone joining in: foreign diplomats, their Canadian friends from Ottawa and the Wabano people.

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