Thunder Bay

Matawa plans to transform Dawson Court building into training, wellness facility

Matawa First Nations Management will once again breathe new life into an empty building in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Matawa First Nations Management purchased former care home on N. Algoma

The former Dawson Court building, located on Algoma Street N. in Thunder Bay, has been purchased by Matawa First Nations Management. (Matawa First Nations/Facebook )

Matawa First Nations Management (MFNM) will once again breathe new life into an empty building in Thunder Bay, Ont.

On Wednesday, it was announced that the tribal council, which represents nine First Nations communities, has purchased the former Dawson Court Home for the Aged on Algoma Street, and plans to transform the building into a training and wellness centre. 

"Over a year ago our chiefs identified a need ... as the Matawa organization was growing, we needed more space to accommodate our growth," said David-Paul Achneepineskum, the CEO of MFNM, "so our chiefs decided to mandate Matawa to go ahead and see what we could find within the city of Thunder Bay."  

They then became aware that the Dawson Court building may be coming up for sale. It had been previously purchased by Ahsanhul Habib who acquired the building from the city in 2017 with plans to open a residence for post-secondary students.    

New centre will house health, employment training, accommodations

The new Matawa Training and Wellness Centre will house three services under one roof: Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen Employment & Training Services (KKETS), the Matawa Health Cooperative, and Awashishishewiigiihiwaywiin –​​​​​​ the tribal council's social services department.

It will be renovated to include trades training classrooms as well as accommodations for adult students. The building will also house a health services clinic, and transitional housing for families at risk of homelessness. 

While Matawa needs more space for numerous programs, the employment and training division is the biggest, Achneepineskum said, and the ability to provide appropriate accommodation for students is key.

"In our organization, KKETS, we train people from our remote communities. So they have to come here to Thunder Bay to get that training or high school adult education," he said, adding that finding temporary housing can be difficult.

"We've been accommodating them in motels, etc., but that's not very conducive for well-being ... for our students," he explained. "So I believe we can accommodate up to 40 plus students in [the Dawson Court] building." 

Matawa CEO David Paul Achneepineskum says the former Dawson Court building will house numerous programs that are outgrowing their current space. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

'Ambitious' timeline

MFNM estimates it will need to raise about $18 million to renovate the building. However, constructing a new building would have been much costlier, he said, adding that the price tag to build new would have been closer to $30 million. 

They hope to have part of the building ready to house employment training programming by fall of this year, he said, and they would like to have a grand opening within the next 12-months. 

"We have a very ambitious timeline," he said. "But I believe we can do that."

"It's very exciting. And for our communities and our clients, they're going to be very happy with what we can offer them." 

This is not the first time Matawa has redeveloped an unused building in the city. In 2017, the tribal council acquired the former Grandview Lodge nursing home, which became the Matawa Education and Care Centre, a secondary school for its youth.

Achneepineskum said that experience will help them as they plan this new development.

He said he also believes the development will benefit the broader community. 

"We want to be good neighbours," he said. "We want to make it hospitable and very welcoming and I believe we can contribute to the economy of the city, and also the well-being of our students that we have, and our clients ... it's going to be more of a permanent solution ... for all of us."