Winnipeg’s once thriving core area had hollowed out, turn-of-the century homes were converted into rooming houses and Main Street was a derelict shadow of its former self.
Enter the Winnipeg Core Area Initiative. The multimillion-dollar facelift for downtown brought together three levels of government to do the heavy lifting. Old storefronts on Portage Avenue, even beloved ones, fell to the wrecking ball, and Portage Place mall rose out of the rubble anchored by the venerable Hudson’s Bay at one end of the skywalk and Eaton’s at the other. Later, development would transform a tangle of ugly rail yards into the tourist destination we know as The Forks.
Off to the sidelines, the most marginalized migrant wave to hit the city since the postwar period was watching, and wishing.
Winnipeg now has the largest Indigenous urban population in Canada, and at more than 90,000 in the latest census, the fastest growing segment of the city’s population — and its youngest.
In the 80s, it was maybe a quarter of that size and it was practically powerless.
Agencies such as Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata were barely beyond startup. The Indian and Métis Friendship Centre was the first among equals, but inadequate for a full-spectrum Indigenous service sector. An Indigenous employment sector didn’t exist. Neither did an Indigenous middle class.
Many migrants were the product of residential schools and, arguably, the number of university grads was so small you could probably throw a party for them in a single room.
As the 1980s morphed into the ’90s, political speeches raised alarms that one in every four workers would be Indigenous by the dawn of the new century, and there was no place for them in the city’s workforce.
Neeginan Centre, known as the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg until a formal name change in 2015, bought the old Canadian Pacific Railway station on Higgins Avenue and Main Street in 1992. The 140,000-square-foot structure dominated Main at Higgins, and it was in sad shape.
During the next two decades, the building would be restored, and Neeginan, using it as a base, built on its dreams to create the platform for an Indigenous middle class in the city.
Neeginan, which means "our place" in Cree, celebrates its 25th anniversary on Dec. 15, and its accomplishments include thousands of working grads and $15 million in property assets.
Hidden in Plain Sight, a University of Toronto two-volume book set, devoted a chapter to Neeginan that modestly states it isn’t the only example of successful urban development in the country, and it won’t be the last, but behind the commercial humility, the place has seen phenomenal growth and development that has been mostly overlooked.
The stretch of Main Street on the edge of the Exchange District where Neeginan is located has seen several significant developments rise since the Aboriginal Centre opened its doors. These days, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Youth for Christ and Thunderbird House are within a stone’s throw of the former railway station. Across the parking lot, the other old CPR office building is the headquarters of the Manitoba Metis Federation.
And the city’s urban Indigenous population now has the presence and the numbers to claim its title as the Indigenous capital of Canada.
The city’s grassroots core, for instance, is acknowledged to be one of the strongest Indigenous voices in the country, in part because of various circumstances and incidents that helped shape it.
The city has been called the epicentre for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls; the Bear Clan was first founded in the 1990s and revived after the 2014 slaying of Indigenous teen Tina Fontaine; and Idle No More was part of the collective conscious that same year as flash mob round dances, including one that filled Portage and Main, were common.
And of course, Winnipeg is a pivot point for the nation’s latest Indigenous initiative: reconciliation.
Brick by brick
For a long time, the one thing most non-Indigenous city dwellers probably recalled about Neeginan wasn’t its development, it was the slaying of an 11-year-old boy in the summer of 2002. The child’s body was found in the basement of the building. Two years later, an ex-janitor pleaded guilty to the crime and is still serving time.
That Neeginan’s development was largely overlooked is one of the more amazing aspects of its story.
"The success had everything with incrementalization," said Neeginan Centre board chairman Bill Shead, who sat down alongside the centre’s longtime executive director, Marileen Bartlett, to recount the organization’s history. He also wrote the chapter on Neeginan in the U of T book set.
"When we moved into this building, we had a light bill to pay, electricity, property taxes, heat," Shead recalled. At that point, the building had been empty for four years. As a heritage building, the new owners were saddled with extensive restoration work, never mind turning it into office space for the city’s Indigenous service sector.
"We started off with a pile of bricks," chuckled Bartlett, who is also executive director of Neeginan’s central tenant and structural pillar, the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development.
Bartlett has spent 34 years in community development, the last 25 supervising the development of Neeginan and its various commercial spokes. For her dedication to the community, she was awarded the Order of Manitoba in 2016.
Shead joined her and other notables, such as retired social justice advocate Wayne Helgason, at the very beginning. That inner circle would be witness to lasting friendships.
"We really all met because of this building," Shead said. A federal civil servant and navy veteran, Shead was seconded from Veterans Affairs as Neeginan’s CEO for the first two years and would be instrumental in building it up, bit by bit.
Slow and steady
Both Stead and Bartlett were familiar with the vision of Neeginan, a proposal they dusted off from a 1970s-era study, which first identified the need for an all-service education and technology campus, and named it Neeginan.
"We knew that if Indigenous people were moving to the city, well, you’re going to need services, like a bank to cash a cheque, get a loan, and people needed to know how to do that. The same thing applies to when you’re looking at people who are getting ready to get a job. We built it (the service hub) up unit by unit, and the number of units that it took, those are all the agencies. We came together and co-operated, and we managed it under one roof," Shead said.
Cast as a fable, this story might be framed as the race between the tortoise and the hare.
Glitzy developments such as Portage Place charged ahead and got the attention, which the bigger downtown projects still do: take for example the renovation and expansion of the RBC Convention Centre and/or construction of the MTS Centre (now Bell MTS Place).
Neeginan was the tortoise, and its shell started with a massive refurbishment.
By the 1980s, the CPR couldn’t wait to get the heritage headache off its hands. A consortium of Indigenous agencies picked it up for $1.1 million and took possession in December 1992. They had a down payment of $50,000 hobbled together by various grants from the likes of Parks Canada and the Northwest Company. Four individuals, including Shead and Bartlett, personally pledged $5,000 each to help with the down payment.
At the peak of its membership, there were 21 agencies in the consortium.
The Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg united the groups and gave them what they didn’t have: space together.
Retrofitting the 80,000 square feet of office space included removing hazardous asbestos. The process took three years and accounted for 70,000 man hours of Indigenous labour that doubled as job training.
More money went into the painstaking heritage restoration.
To pay for the work, the new owners would cobble together $2.6 million from 1992 to 1995 through 24 separate funding agreements with 16 separate government and private agencies. Annual revenues from renting office space climbed steadily from $73,000 in 1993 to $900,000 by 1997.
Neeginan is a full-service campus these days, encompassing the entire block on the north side of Higgins east of Main, offering a wide range of services and educational options.
The Neeginan Learning & Literacy Centre is aimed at programming for adult learners, while the College of Applied Technology focuses on technical and vocational post-secondary training.
Ted Taylor teaches welding.
"I just love it. Forty years in the trade and I get to give back to my people," he said. "This is so much more than just a job, I never realized I’d be a counsellor, but once the students see you really care, they respond to that."
The success rate for grads is high, Taylor said, noting 90 per cent of the latest grads landed jobs, which is not unusual.
The Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development handles upgrading and 1,001 other training components, the nuts and bolts of job preparation before students step up to high-skills trades.
Across the street is a property repurposed as a daycare centre. Next to the skills-training building is an apartment building, and next to that a set of rowhouses. A block north on Main, Neeginan owns a recycling outlet for electronics and mattresses. The campus is large enough to support its own communications system, including internet and phones.
Growth reflected Neeginan’s needs for tradesmen in the early days, with boiler operators, carpentry and such. Over the years, the trades programs have evolved to meet current industry needs in areas such as aerospace training and computer-assisted machining.
Greg Goulet, a member of an extended Métis family with a street named after them in St. Boniface, was among the early grads. He credited his 18 years of steady employment at the city’s largest school division with the training as a boiler operator and power engineer — along with the life skills he learned — at Neeginan.
"They fed us lunch to keep us there. They done everything they could to show us we are worth something... that we all have a special skill. And they helped us find it," Goulet said.
Many Indigenous people were considered the city’s underclass 25 years ago, and while poverty still marks swaths of the North End and core area, it was a lot worse back then, Goulet noted.
"Everyone who went there, we all had issues. We were adults, but some of us just couldn’t find our paths. They helped turn us into adults," he said.
"In a roundabout way, they made a man out of me. I hope it doesn’t sound too corny, but I owe a lot to them. They were teaching us how to get along in life."
Determined to succeed
Back at Bartlett’s office, the executive director hands over a sheet of paper set with cursive script.
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It’s clearly a paean to Neeginan; five short stanzas about the derelict railway station that transformed the city’s Indigenous sector.
"Released are the memories of passengers forgotten. Farewell to the asbestos that clinged to the walls. Surviving the massacre of their history. Now representing a sturdy and devoted culture that wants not to be defined," it begins.
Bartlett is a woman of few words, but Karen Angeconeb’s poem 17 years ago clearly moves her still. She keeps a copy as a touchstone, always on hand to remind her why she stays on the job.
"I read it once in a while, and it gives me shivers every time," Bartlett said.
The poem ends: "Determined to succeed for all who showed shame and confusion, they opened the door, beginning to repair their claim. With great worthiness and a true future, they appointed the name, the Aboriginal Centre."
The building blocks of the Neeginan Centre
The $15 million in property assets started with the purchase of old CPR building at 181 Higgins Ave. The down payment was $50,000 on a $1.1 million mortgage in 1992.
Since then the centre has expanded and bought up the rest of the block, building housing and space for a trades college, plus a daycare centre and a recycling plant.
Neeginan Learning & Literacy Centre offers literacy training and adult upgrading.
The Aboriginal Community Campus provides upgrading in math, English, chemistry, physics, biology, political science and Indigenous languages.
The Neeginan College of Applied Technology provides technical training in carpentry, welding, computer-assisted manufacturing and accounting, along with training for building-systems technicians, medical-laboratory technicians, licenced practical nurses, educational assistants and glass workers.
Kookum’s Place runs a licenced daycare centre with 49 spaces for children ages three months to six years in two locations: inside the building and a stand-alone building across the street.
Neeginan Village provides 43 student housing units.
The Aboriginal Aerospace Initiative, trains students for jobs in the aerospace industry.
Mother Earth recycles computers and mattresses.
Neeginan generates $1 million in annual income through rents, restaurant and catering operations, and through its operations and students contributes millions in tax revenues.
Offers the best hearty beef vegetable soup in the city, by the way.
200 employees run the campus and about 3,000 students pass through its doors for education, training and employment programs annually.
1,300 jobs landed a year.
Restoration of the former Canadian Pacific Railway building anchored later developments, including Thunderbird House, the Manitoba Metis Federation building, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the Youth in Christ centre, as well as major streetscaping on Main.