Indigenous-led projects to create affordable housing

Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Southern Chiefs’ Organization develop downtown

This building under construction at 380 Young St. is owned by the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

Keeley Braunastein-Black

Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) is building a new apartment complex in downtown Winnipeg to provide affordable housing for Indigenous students and elders.

The seven-storey building at 380 Young St. near the University of Winnipeg is expected to be finished this summer. Owned and operated by Opaskwayak, it will create 69 units.

“That’s a big boost for our students,” Opaskwayak Chief Maureen Brown says. “We have a high percentage of students from our community that go to ... different higher-learning centres. They’d be able to rent our spaces there.”

Chief Brown adds that the living spaces are available to anyone regardless of whether they are Indigenous or not. Chief Brown hopes other businesses will see how vital Opaskwayak’s contribution is in Winnipeg and want to partner with them on other projects in the future.

Previously, First Nations didn’t have the same opportunities to participate in the economic landscape, Chief Brown adds.

“It’s definitely a step towards reconciliation,” Chief Brown says. “We’ve been at this for a very long time and taking the steps to become a self-sufficient, self-determining nation. Most First Nations haven’t had that kind of opportunity that we have.”

Opaskwayak is contributing $1.8 million to the project. The province is spending $105,000 from Efficiency Manitoba, and the federal government is providing $15.6 million.

In addition to the 380 Young St. apartment plan, another Indigenous-led housing project is taking place a few blocks away at 450 Portage Ave.

The 98-year-old Hudson’s Bay Company building is being converted into more than 300 affordable housing units and a health and healing centre in addition to restaurant, museum, gallery and business spaces. The project is led by the Southern Chiefs’ Organization (SCO).

The Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, announced in April 2022, is hiring First Nations trade professionals through Miikahnah Connect to help develop the building.

Miikahnah Connect is operated by Faber Connect Technologies and works to connect skilled workers with construction companies to complete specific projects.

“We are working to create long-term employment opportunities to benefit our citizens and our Nations,” SCO Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says in a press release.

“This technology will greatly contribute to the Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn project and will foster social and economic growth.”

HBC gifted the building to SCO in March 2023. SCO regards the move as a “visionary plan” for “economic and social reconciliation.”

“The project’s working title is Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn, or ‘it is visible,’ and it will be a public act of reclamation and reconciliation as First Nations become the new own- ers of the historic building,” according to the press release issued March 7.

HBC is the oldest company in North America and has a colonial history. Indigenous Peoples played a significant role in the fur trade, but SCO says their history is “often invisible in the Canadian narrative.” SCO hopes to preserve heritage and revive Winnipeg’s downtown by taking over ownership of the building.

Chief Brown says Opaskwayak had different opportunities for economic growth than some other First Nations because of their access to gravel as a natural resource. As a result, Opaskwayak was the first First Nation to open an on-reserve shopping mall in 1975.

Despite this, Opaskwayak has still faced obstacles to greater economic growth.

“It’s been very difficult for us to overcome the barriers that have been in place,” Chief Brown says, “but we have a lot of people working toward reconciliation and opening those doors.”

Published in Volume 78, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 14, 2024)

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