Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre uses pandemic closure to digitize collection

A community and cultural hub for Indigenous people in Winnipeg has found new life during the pandemic through special projects and is gearing up for when people are able to visit in-person again.

Staff eager to show centre's 'inward-focused work' to patrons when doors open again

Dene Sinclair has helped the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre secure funding for projects like online language classes, as well as a digitization project for the centre's vast audio and visual collection. (Rich Pope)

A community and cultural hub for Indigenous people in Winnipeg has found new life during the pandemic through special projects and is gearing up for when people are able to visit in-person again.

"The people that don't know about the centre are really shocked when they come here and see everything that there is to learn and see and do," said Dene Sinclair.

Sinclair, who is Anishinaabe from Peguis First Nation, started working as a consultant with the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre (MICEC) just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The not-for-profit education organization in the heart of Winnipeg's Point Douglas neighbourhood was founded in 1975 by the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood.

It holds a unique collection of art and cultural artifacts, photos, audio and video recordings and books, and its staff offer programming on Indigenous languages and culture.

In the past, the centre has relied on operational grants and two annual community fundraisers — a minor hockey tournament and a monster bingo — to help run its programming.

The fundraisers have been cancelled the past two years due to the pandemic but Sinclair has found new funds that have gone toward ensuring staff have jobs, and digitizing the collections.

"Because the centre hasn't been open since the start of the pandemic, we've been able to digitize our entire audio-visual collection," said Sinclair.

"We're taking photographs and documenting our entire material collection. We're recording oral histories as it relates to our collection. It's all just been really interesting, kind of inward-focused work and we're hoping to be able to share that outwardly over the next few months."

She said one of the projects features interviews with First Nations language speakers from the 1990s that are being edited, translated and transcribed for educational purposes. 

Language classes move online

Prior to the pandemic, the centre was home to "language tables" that connected fluent Cree and Ojibway speakers with people who wanted to learn.

The centre has since transitioned to online learning and has found new students in the process.

"To me, that's probably one of the coolest things that we were able to start doing in the last few months," said Sinclair.

Brian Chrupalo joined his first beginner Ojibway language class in November and attends two one-hour, online classes a week.

"The people in the class are really good; they don't judge you when you make a grammatical error," said Chrupalo, whose mother is from the Métis community of Duck Bay, Man.

He said people join the online classes from places like Michigan, Saskatchewan and Ontario and that he has lots of laughs while learning the language.

"I've really enjoyed the Zoom sessions," said Chrupalo. 

"If they were in person, I would go out of my way to go to the class, that's how much I've enjoyed it."

Sharissa Neault has helped grow the centre's reach online through the use of TikTok. (m.i.c.e.c/TikTok)

While one of the main priorities of the centre is to keep community members safe, people like Dawnis Kennedy, the community connections co-ordinator, are thinking about what it will be like to open the doors to the public again.

Kennedy, who is from Roseau River Anishinabe Nation, said there has been growing interest in learning languages and culture and believes it is due to things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report in 2015.

"Our people have a right to know who they are," she said.

"That's the vision that you see in the centre ...  when you walk in and you see that beauty and you feel that inside, that's that sense of pride, that sense of knowing who you are."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1