M’CHIGEENG — It has been a long seven-year journey since the concept of building a special elders centre that would provide a living space for those elderly in the M’Chigeeng community that do not need the high level of nursing care provided by the community’s long term care facility was first broached, but this past weekend saw the official opening of the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre.

The centre was envisioned, in the words of the opening ceremony’s emcee and community elder Grace Fox, as a place “where we can speak our language without reprisal.”

M’Chigeeng Chief Joe Hare took to the podium to speak about his thoughts on the opening of the centre, noting that the event would likely be his last official act as the election of his successor would be taking place on September 12 (Chief Hare has decided to retire from political life). “It is good to see people here,” he said, teasing some in the audience about being “dressed up” for the occasion.

“I have to the best of my ability supported this place, this vision, this building, on behalf of the leadership, the elders of this community and Grace Fox,” he said. Chief Hare noted the importance of protecting the language, Anishinaabemowin, and that this initiative, which began so long ago, is hopefully just one of many more events that will support the language as time goes by.

The entrance to the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre
The entrance to the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre

Although Chief Hare noted that the building does not yet have enough people signed up as tenants to fill its 10 apartments (originally there was a waiting list, but the time frame in completing the project took its toll on that list), he admonished the future leadership of the community to stay true to the vision of restricting tenancy to the elderly.

He urged the community to support those people running for council that would maintain that vision, rather than falling to the pressure of opening up the apartments for general rental. “I am getting out of politics,” he said, “so I can say what I want to say.” He chastised those council members who wanted to open up the rentals to those other than the elderly. “I have nothing against younger people,” he said. “I wish I was younger myself, but I would encourage you to support the elders. There are lots of other places for younger people to stay or build homes.”

Chief Hare lauded the work of councillors Henry Panamick, Linda Debassige and G’mewin Migwans (the latter two are running to replace him as chief), who he said were very supportive of the project. He urged the electors of M’Chigeeng to stand behind their elders and to make their feelings known to the new council. “I urge you to stand together and keep this place the way it was intended to be.”

The building was designed and constructed without using the band’s general funds, although the most recent meeting of council did secure an additional $250,000 towards making improvements in the building.

The spacious two-bedroom units are envisioned as providing homes for individual elders, with the second bedroom geared towards live-in caretakers or spouses. The rent, which is set at an affordable $650 a month all-in, includes a fully-equipped kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, full bathrooms with assistive devices, patio doors leading out to an outstanding view, gardens (landscaped by volunteers led by Gene and Susan Bebamash) and parking in a covered garage.

The building also includes a boardroom, meeting hall, well-equipped kitchen for events and an apartment for visiting lecturers and locums.

The steering committee for the project was fully volunteer, noted Ms. Fox. “There was no meeting honorariums, no mileage claims submitted, no remuneration of any kind for the committee members,” she said. She noted that the building was financed through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Commission. “We still owe a lot,” she said, “but we have not put the band in deficit.”

The emcee noted that there were a large number of people and businesses in the community who had made significant personal donations to get the project off the ground, including $1,000 contributions from Patrine and Dr. O’Connor, Roseanne Debassige, Susan Hare, Joe Hare, Justin Roy (all the way from Arizona), Kenjgewin Teg, the UCCMM and others who wished to remain anonymous that came to $12,000.

Members of the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre steering committee  and Deacon Joe Fox are presented with gifts of appreciation from the centre. photos by Michael Erskine
Members of the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre steering committee and Deacon Joe Fox are presented with gifts of appreciation from the centre.
photos by Michael Erskine

“If anyone else has $1,000 to spare we would happily accept it,” said Ms. Fox to a chorus of laughter.

Ms. Fox recognized the attendance of Elizabeth Roy and Bertha Roy of the UCCM Elder’s Group and the hard work of the steering committee members Evelyn Debassige, Pauline Debassige and Christine Migwans. “These are the people who made things rock in this place,” she said.

Ms. Fox also recognized the hard work of the four coordinators, starting with Diane Debassige, who worked on the project since its inception, especially the current coordinator Missy Corbiere. “She is not a clock watcher,” said Ms. Fox, adding with a laugh that “sometimes we wish she would.”

An elder by definition of the Anishinaabemowin Gamig Elders Centre is fairly lenient, beginning at age 50, so it includes some people who might bristle at being labeled as seniors, she noted.

Deacon Joe Fox delivered an opening prayer at the ceremonies, and conducted a blessing with cedar and holy water following the speeches, while an ad hoc drum group garnered from the nearby powwow played an honour song.