Colourful regalia. Delicious food. Traditional performances. Laughter between friends. These were just a few of the sights and sounds to behold at Bissell Centre’s celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day on Friday, June 21, a day which also marks the summer solstice. The solstice is notable for providing the longest stretch of daylight of the year, which was fitting, as the 10 am to 1 pm celebrations saw a reprieve from the relentless stretch of rainy days. As members of our community gathered in the street together to honour the rich and diverse culture and contributions of the Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, the clouds parted and the sun made a welcome appearance on a day that Indigenous people have devoted to celebrating and rejoicing in our connection to the sun and the Earth for thousands of years.
But National Indigenous Peoples Day is about more than just celebration. It’s an opportunity for all Canadians to reflect on the history of mistreatment and adversity that Indigenous people have faced in Canada for hundreds of years, ever since the endless miles of Canadian soil that had belonged solely to them from the beginning of time became inhabited by groups of people who did not share their beliefs or ways of life. The Canada we know today is a beautiful cultural tapestry, brightly woven with colourful threads from cultures, ethnicities and nationalities from all over the world, and we are known internationally as a country that will welcome those who need refuge or who seek a better life for their family with open arms. Even so, it’s important to acknowledge and reflect upon the fact that Canada became the nation it is today at great cost to Indigenous people and their storied heritage. And this history is far from ancient – the last Canadian residential school did not close its doors until 1996. For many Indigenous Canadians, the scars borne of decades of intergenerational trauma and the societal inequity that First Nations, Inuit and Metis people continue to face today often makes the healing process a long and difficult one.
While National Indigenous Peoples Day is an opportunity for both celebration and reflection, it also offers the promise of community. As the sun rose to its highest point in the sky over Bissell Centre on Friday, it shone down upon traditional performances of drumming, singing, and dancing, Indigenous art forms that continue to be passed down from generation to generation as visceral representations of the beauty, passion and deep spirituality of Indigenous culture. It alighted down upon friends, families and loved ones of all different cultures sitting down to a delicious traditional meal of stew and bannock, sharing stories and laughter as they ate together. It cast its dazzling light upon a day meant not only to celebrate the countless contributions that First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples have made to Canada, but also for us as a wider community to show our solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and the adversity they continue to encounter every day.
Bissell Centre, founded in 1910, has always been an ally to the Indigenous community. In the days when Indigenous religious ceremonies and cultural practices were illegal in Canada, Bissell Centre provided a safe haven for Indigenous leaders to practice and keep their rich culture alive. We continue to strive today to be an organization where Indigenous traditions and practices are not merely accepted, but celebrated – not only on National Indigenous Peoples Day, but every day of the year.
Bissell Centre’s Community Kitchen, part of the larger Community Space renovation, opened in October 2018 and has since been providing individuals who are experiencing homelessness and newly-housed program participants with the skills and confidence to make healthy and affordable meals.
Bissell Centre’s Jennifer McDonald-Robinson has been running the programming in the kitchen since it opened, and she is excited about the impact the community kitchen is making on the lives of the participants so far.
“For a lot of people who are living in poverty, it can become an all-encompassing thing. Poverty affects their emotional, mental, physical and every part of their well-being,” explains Jennifer. “The folks that access our services at Bissell are people coming from food insecure households and because of that they’re more likely to suffer from emotional, mental and physical health difficulties.”
Jennifer believes that by teaching program participants the skills to create nutritious and delicious food for themselves, it can help break that cycle of poverty and isolation.
“Just because they’re experiencing homelessness doesn’t mean they don’t like good food.”
“With most of the food for the community kitchen coming from the food bank, it gives participants an opportunity to learn what they can create from the food bank items,” explains Jennifer. “We can show them different ways to use a can of beans, because eating just a can of beans can be boring. Just because they’re experiencing homelessness doesn’t mean they don’t like good food.”
Jennifer goes on to explain that with poverty, there is also an isolation component. Having participants out and interacting in a positive space really helps ward off social isolation.
One of participant Barry’s favourite things about the community kitchen is getting to meet new people and to not be alone.
“There were two gentlemen who are accessing the program who were a bit withdrawn at first,” explains Jennifer. “But now they meet at the library to look up recipes for the program.”
Jennifer feels that having the opportunity to gather together in the kitchen gives people a boost to their social lives, which can be just as much of a benefit as the culinary skills they walk away with each week.
Barry is particularly excited about what he’s learning.
“It’s teaching me how to cook for myself and how to follow a recipe,” Barry explains.
For many program participants, inter-generational trauma has prevented them from acquiring the kitchen skills they need in their lives.
“They missed out on a lot of those basic teachings that perhaps a lot of other people have because of their trauma,” explains Jennifer. “And if they were taught those skills and experienced homelessness for a period of time, those skills lay dormant and they can forget them.”
“There were things I wasn’t taught… So now I’m learning them and I can cook for people.”
“There were things I wasn’t taught,” says participant Rocky. “So now I’m learning them and I can cook for people.”
This is why the simple act of creating a meal or a dish gives participants so much joy.
Bissell will be inviting local chefs to come in and teach program participants various kitchen techniques. Community Kitchen programs run on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as an indigenous walk-in program every 2nd Friday. Here, program participants are learning invaluable kitchen skills and building supportive relationships that will help them move out of poverty and feel empowered while doing so.
Got kitchen skills you’d like to share with our participants? We want to hear from you! Email Jen here.
Guest post by Jacquie DuVal
Bissell Centre employee, Sissy Thiessen, shares her story of assuming the various positions of volunteer, program participant and employee within Bissell. This is the final part of a three-part series.
By: Sissy Thiessen
All Sides of the Coin – Part 3: My Role of Employee
To my surprise, my journey with Bissell Centre did not end after my time volunteering and participating in the summer of 2009. Three years after entering the doors of the Robert Tegler Friendship Room for the first time, I finally returned to Bissell. But this time, not as a volunteer or participant.
Ever since the day a speaker from Bissell came to my high school, a seed was planted in my mind that made me want to be within the centre. Even after I volunteered and moved on to spend three years in another city being a University student, active volunteer and employee, I still found myself thinking about coming back to Bissell. Upon returning home to Edmonton after my studies, I decided I wanted to work at Bissell Centre.
On my first attempt, I had applied for a position within Bissell’s Homeless to Homes program, a program aimed at providing clients in need with stable housing and access to income supports. I was unsuccessful, but had learned more about the amazing support Bissell provides to inner city Edmontonians. I also felt like I put my name on a list and that someday, someone would recognize my drive, passion and eagerness to work for an organization that directly assists people. And I was right.
In October 2012, I applied for and accepted a position within Employment Services, which assists participants looking to enter or re-enter the workforce. Manager, Mark Bubel, said my passion and writing skills were apparent in my letter of intent and after interviewing me, was gracious enough to take a chance on me. I was given an opportunity to prove to myself, as well as the organization, why I kept feeling the need to return.
I started my position as an Employment Support Worker on a relief basis at the end of October, and have gained a multitude of knowledge, experience and transferable skills since commencing employment. I have learned the inner workings of a non-profit organization, how to provide someone with the skills required to succeed in life and the workforce, conflict resolution and most importantly, I have learned how to empower someone. I have had the opportunity to work within a well organized social service agency that directly works toward eliminating poverty in our community.
Through my time spent in Employment Services, I have also gained valuable skills to assist me on my own career path. I came to help others and by the graciousness of this organization and its leaders, I have also been helped in return. I was even granted the opportunity to utilize my education in Journalism and work within Marketing and Communications a few hours a week.
At the time being, I have been offered a permanent, full-time position in a project-support role for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum of Services (FASS). This program works to enhance our community’s understanding of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), how to prevent it, as well as supports individuals and families affected by FASD. I am so thankful for all the opportunities Bissell has provided me with thus far, which have exemplified what it means to be genuinely compassionate, empathetic and courageous. These experiences have also taught me one of the most important lessons I think can be taught- the true power of the human spirit in the face of the most challenging obstacles. My life has been given new direction and meaning, and I am grateful my path has lead me back to Bissell Centre. I look forward to my future within this organization, as well as the continued generosity and lessons that accompany it.
This is the story shared with Bissell Centre by one of our supporters, Patti Jones. Thank you for passing it along to us and allowing it to be shared! We hope it encourages you, your family, your community and/or your place of work to talk about how we view our most vulnerable and what we might be able to do to help.
My mom always said, “help should begin at home.”
My dad was divorced from my mom when I was six months old. He was an alcoholic most of his life and struggled with his own demons. He lived in the inner city of most of his life – the last few in a rooming house not far from the downtown station. He didn’t give us a lot of opportunity to see him often, but it’s organizations like yours [Bissell Centre] that gave him some hope to get through another day. It also gives families, who are in situations similar to our families, the peace of mind that there are places their loved ones can go to for help.
You truly build a community with those in need, either impoverished or homeless, and it still makes me smile.
I recall one visit my sister and I made to our dad not long before he passed away. He took us on a walk through the neighbourhood late at night, which was a little scary for me and my sister. We went to the liquor store to buy him alcohol, because that was easier to bear than the alternative (that he might pick through garbage to find bottles to exchange for cash to pay for his booze). It was one way we could show him love – understanding that he wasn’t going to change or stop drinking. When we walked with him, many of the street people knew him, (as Freddy McDougall), and we had the opportunity to say hello to his friends. It didn’t take us any longer than that walk to learn they truly look after each other.
A few months after that night, my father had not been seen for a few days around the rooming house and it was one of those friends who called the police to report it. The police broke down his door to get in his room and that is when he was found. He had passed away from what they believe was heart failure. Had it not been for such a tight community in that rooming house and neighbourhood, he could have been left unfound much longer. Read More…
Bissell Centre employee Sissy Thiessen shares her story of assuming the various positions of volunteer, program participant and employee within Bissell. This is a three-part series that will be published separately.
By: Sissy Thiessen
PART ONE: Volunteering at Bissell Centre
I was sitting in Social Studies class in high school when I first heard about Bissell Centre. An employee from the centre came to talk about what the organization does for Edmontonians in need, and what it means to truly give back to your community. For the life of me, I cannot remember who the person was or what they did at Bissell, but the message of hope in their words is one that has stayed with me since I first heard them in 2005. I remember feeling so impacted by the warm heartedness and compassion I was hearing about. I was so amazed at how an organization could do so much for so many- how much help was really out there. And how much need for these services there really was.
It wasn’t until 2009 that I finally got around to volunteering for Bissell Centre. I had recently watched a movie called “Yes Man,” starring Jim Carrey, a movie about staring fear and apprehensions right in the face and saying “Yes” to any opportunity that comes your way. Giving what you have and going along for the ride. In the movie, Jim’s character volunteered serving soup to the homeless. And just like my mother will tell you, if I see something I want to do being done, I will find a way to do it. So, my mind was made up. I was going to serve soup to the homeless. Read More…
Bryn MacDonald, a proud father, went from making $1,000 a day to an average of $1,000 a month, but he couldn’t be happier. When his daughter was born, he made the choice to work for himself as a graphic and website designer over working for a large corporation overseas. He explains, “She is my first child and I want to be the best parent I can be for her. I want to see her grow up and have stability.” He saw how important family values were in Asia and wanted to give his daughter the same caring and supportive environment to thrive in.
Since 2009, he has been spending his days working at home, while spending quality time with his daughter. When he needs a break, he brings his daughter to Bissell Centre’s Child Care centre. He drops her off twice a week at the day care so that he can have some time to relax and take naps. He is also taking the parenting courses offered by Bissell so that he can learn to be a better parent.
Bryn lives in the area, but it is not the only reason he enjoys coming to Bissell. “The staff are so nice. They really do care about the children. It is obvious by how they treat the children,” he tells me. And over the years, he has become good friends with some of the staff. They are so supportive and caring and are great role models for his daughter.
It is obvious that he is happy with where he is at right now. He doesn’t care about the money he could have made overseas. He is making ends meet, but he has a close relationship with his daughter and that is priceless.
Written by Guest Blogger Karen Lee.
Q & A with Mandy, Community Closet Worker
So what do you do at Bissell?
I work in the Community Closet. I do paperwork, sort donations and organize the closet to keep it tidy.
What is the Community Closet?
The Community Closet, located in the basement of Bissell Centre, is a program where low income/no income clients can receive free clothes and household items on a referral basis. We work with 22 other agencies across the city, i.e the John Howard Society, women shelters, H.I.V Edmonton and more. Once a client gets referred, they get a voucher to use at the Community Closet. They will have up to 2 weeks to fill it. This service can be accessed once every three months. It is open Monday to Friday from 12:30-4:30pm. Clients can drop by anytime with their vouchers.
How many years have you been with Bissell?
I’ve been here for 11 years, ever since the Community Closet program started.
What do you like most about working here?
It is rewarding and I get to help people. It is as simple as that.
How many clients do you see on a daily basis?
It varies, but we average about 28 clients a day.
Where can people drop off their donations?
You can drop off your clothes and other household items at the Bissell Thrift Shoppe on 8818 118 Avenue or our South Side Donation Centre at 5120 – 122 Street or you can drop them off directly at Bissell Centre (10527 96 Street), if you prefer. We are always short on Men’s clothes. So if you have any, please drop them off!
Marilyn, a new Community Closet client
Marilyn is one of the many clients who access the Community Closet at Bissell. She is waiting outside the doors patiently with her voucher in her hands. She came here today looking for a change of clothes. It is her first time here. She has been on the streets for some time now in the same clothes and only came here because some people on the street told her about his place. Marilyn didn’t ever think she would be in her current situation. She always had her own place. She didn’t have to worry about where she would be sleeping each night. Now due to some unfortunate circumstances, she is homeless. Tonight, she will be staying in a shelter. Her future is uncertain. The only thing that she is certain about is that she will get some clean clothes to wear from Bissell Centre’s Community Closet.
To find out more about this program, please contact the Community Closet at 780-423-2285, ext. 118 or view the Community Closet webpage.
Story written by Guest Blogger Karen Lee.
Guest Blogger: Karen Lee, photojournalist
It’s a common stereotype: Homeless people are too lazy to work and live off of handouts from the government. Yes, there are people like that, but it’s rarely the case. It’s not often we hear about the people who actually want to make an honest living, and perhaps even change their lives.
There is often a long line of people at Bissell Centre’s Employment Services’ Casual Labour office. It’s so popular that they have a Bingo Ball system in place so that everyone gets a fair chance for the day’s jobs. Jobs are in high demand. There are usually more people than jobs available. And they are more than willing to work for a lower-than-industry standard wage. They are willing to travel an hour or more by transit to get to these jobs. They are prepared to sweat and get their hands dirty.
After spending a period of time with some of the workers, I have gained a new form of respect for the clients that apply to work in Casual Labour. The work they do isn’t easy. These aren’t cushy office jobs. The available jobs are often physically laborious and repetitive. The work environment isn’t always pretty. One of the places I visited was a scrap metal yard. It was understandably dirty and muddy. It was a brisk winter day, yet the workers
did not complain once or ask to go inside to warm up. The work is tedious and tiresome, but they don’t seem to mind. It is evident that they are hardworking and dedicated. Mario, a worker in his 60s, was impressive. He could barely speak English and didn’t have the same energy or stamina as his co-worker in his 20s, but he did his best to earn his wage for the day. And he does it with a smile. I can tell he is grateful to have a job, even if it’s just temporary.
I also spent time at a lumber mill. Bissell Centre has partnered with this company for over 10 years and they have had quite a few success stories. There are many great things about this company. One being that Bissell’s clients have the opportunity to train and work as permanent staff. For the highly motivated and determined, this is life changing! With a permanent job, they can get better housing and not worry about their next meal. They can support themselves and their family. They can have a sense of dignity and self-respect.
There are lots of able-bodied, hardworking individuals in the Bissell community looking for work. Will you give them a chance? Bissell Centre is always looking for employers to partner with their Casual Labour program. Please contact Employment Services at 780.424.4385.
Thanks Karen for volunteering your time and talent to Bissell Centre. It is only through working together that we will be able to fulfill our vision of eliminating poverty in our community.
If you or anyone you know are interested in being a Guest Blogger on topics such as homelessness, poverty, unemployment, change, human services, food services, mental health, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or any other relevant topic, please feel free to contact Kristen Clark, Marketing & Communications Manager at [email protected].