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How 'little bears' defied the odds

This place saves lives. Happy sounds of children fill it up: There are stories, family workshops, naps and playing. The Spirit Room at Makoonsag Intergenerational Learning Centre is where children get a solid start by learning from parents, staff and elders. As elder Stella Blackbird said early in the design process, "Everyone learns from each other." Many of the parents take courses at the Urban Circle Training Centre next door, allowing them to spend the day here and have lunch and breaks as a family.

Makoonsag means "little bears" in Cree. Blackbird's vision of the Spirit Room was a domed structure, inspired by the traditional sweat lodge. Curved wood beams form the ribs of the room, joined to a circular beam at the ceiling. In between these ribs are slats of wood to give the space a warm, comfortable feel. Small lights dot the curved ceiling like stars. My good friend and colleague, David Thomas, and his father put together the little-bear mosaic in the centre of the floor, spending many late nights laughing and tiling.

This daycare defied the odds. The neighbourhood of William Whyte is statistically the most troubled area in the city. However, there's a wealth of positive activity and a passion and hope for the future. In early planning meetings, we discussed how to deal with the project's location, at the time, right next door to the Merchants Hotel -- an infamous place that used to attract violence. Blackbird had faith that if the community reclaimed this place, things would change. Just before Makoonsag's grand opening on May 31, 2012, the Merchants Hotel closed its doors for good. A month earlier, Premier Greg Selinger announced plans for a new community development with housing, education and business. Thanks to the tireless work of people like Urban Circle's director of development Eleanor Thompson and organizations such as the North End Community Renewal Corporation, this space is now safe for kids, mainly because that is what the community itself demanded.

Small touches make this place my favourite spot in the whole city. The play yard, designed by McGowan Russell landscape architects, uses native plants to make a natural play-scape that mimics the same fun experiences of a natural meadow. The angled north-south line of the paths continues right through the building, honouring each of the four directions that have a meaning in First Nations teachings. Skylights along the north-south line bring daylight in from up high and define the open corridors that make the whole daycare feel like one space. The Spirit Room is the heart of the building. It sits independently -- a lodge within a lodge.

The building itself has a rich history on Selkirk Avenue. The original foundations from the small house on the north side of Selkirk Avenue are still there. In 1921, there was an addition to make a neighbourhood grocery store that stayed in business until the 1950s. In 1966, then-owner Misha Pollock expanded his children and menswear store. I can personally attest that with each part built differently, bringing them all together in one design wasn't easy. Prairie Architects Inc. worked closely with the steering committee and held collaborative design sessions and an open house to figure out what would work best in the new daycare. The final product was great, but my favourite part was listening to stories from all the people who lived and worked nearby.

My own involvement with this site started in 2004. My architectural thesis involved several years of community research on what were then vacant lots behind Makoonsag, where the natural play yard is now. I was designing student housing, but all the women said, "We need a daycare first." That's exactly what's happened. Many of the same team members who worked so hard on Makoonsag are now in the planning stages to convert the old Merchants Hotel into a positive community hub. The little Spirit Room and the children growing up inside it are just starting to weave their energy through the neighbourhood.

Eladia Smoke is millimetres away from being the first female First Nations architect in Canada (Lac Seul First Nation), and has 10 years' experience with Prairie Architects Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2013 A1

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