Nova Scotia

'Beacon of hope': N.S. Native Women's Association seeks support for new centre

The Nova Scotia Native Women's Association is hoping to break ground this fall on a $6.5-million healing and resiliency centre for Indigenous women and their families that would be located in Millbook First Nation.

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing

The resilience centre will house the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, and be a place where Indigenous women, 2SLGBTQQIA people and their families can access a variety of programs and supports in one place. (Solterre Design)

The Nova Scotia Native Women's Association hopes to begin building a $6.5-million resilience centre in Millbook First Nation this fall to help Indigenous women and their families heal. 

The centre will be a "beacon of hope" where community members can access a range of cultural programs and supports in one spot, said project manager Zabrina Whitman.

"The centre is really this beautiful intersectional approach of saying you can't separate the person from community and family," she told CBC Radio's Mainstreet. "Education, health, welfare, environment, economy — they're all interconnected."

Whitman said the project has been in the works for about two years, and it can't wait any longer.

There has been nationwide grief over the discovery of the remains of 215 children near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and a reckoning with the horrors and trauma of a system that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls cultural genocide.

"If we had the centre now, we would have been able to provide the needed support to cope with what's happening," Whitman said.

Zabrina Whitman, the project manager on the resiliency centre project, spoke with host Jeff Douglas about why the centre in Millbrook First Nation is needed and what it could look like.

She's hopeful the project will get the support it needs to move forward as more Nova Scotians join Mi'kmaw communities in calling for justice for residential school survivors and their families. 

"It's about time that Canadians finally felt disgusted by the residential school system, and this is the first time I saw it ever really resonate with people," she said. "[It's] horrible that children's deaths … had to make people wake up and be able to relate to it."

Design inspired by a ribbon skirt

After eight months of engagement with Mi'kmaw organizations, community members and staff at the association, Whitman said the team settled on a building design that's inspired by a traditional ribbon skirt.

The centre will also be energy efficient and sustainable — one of the central tenets of the Mi'kmaw concept of netukulimk.

"From the ground up, the space has to be based in our culture," she said.

There will be space for dancing and drumming, as well as an area where people can learn traditional crafts and sell them, Whitman said. Outside, there will be gardens where community members can grow their own medicines.

The design for the centre is based on sustainability and it aims to be a net zero energy building, Whitman said. (Solterre Design)

"There's a teaching kitchen because we know in residential schools they weren't taught ... everyday skills like how to cook," she said.

While the design of the building is done, Whitman said the association still needs funds from the federal and provincial governments to break ground. She's asking Nova Scotians to write to their local MPs and MLAs and encourage them to support the project. 

NWAC calls for similar centres across Canada

The Native Women's Association of Canada wants to see similar centres set up across the country.

Land-based resiliency lodges are a central part of NWAC's plan to address the 231 calls for justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

The group released its own plan last Tuesday, saying the federal government's long-awaited response to the inquiry was a failure because it lacked concrete steps forward and a timeline. 

Whitman is the project manager for the resilience centre. (Jeff Cooke/Cooked Photography )

"We need to have that healing," CEO Lynne Groulx told CBC Radio's Mainstreet last week. "That's a lot of trauma, intergenerational trauma, and you can't just drop into an office … It's so deep."

A pilot resiliency lodge has been set up in Chelsea, Que., on about a hectare of land where programs are led by elders, Groulx said. There are also plans to open another lodge in New Brunswick soon. 

Whitman said the current office of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association in Truro is too small, and often means staff have to rent space for retreats or gatherings at hotels where it's not always possible to do ceremonies and smudges. 

"The women can't continue to operate out of the space that they are," she said.

"When they try to use facilities across the province, because they're not Indigenous spaces, they're not safe spaces, and we need to be able to do the healing in safe spaces."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

The national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and others. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet