Pandemic has magnified inequalities says Winnipeg community leader

For nearly 40 years, the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre has acted as the grandmother to Winnipeg’s urban Indigenous population.

What started as a meeting among Indigenous leaders to look at community based solutions to the child welfare system has morphed into an organization that provides all kinds of social services and family supports.

The name Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata translates from Ojibway to “we all work together to help one another.”

That work has taken on greater significance over the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggle to keep up with the need, says Executive Director Diane Redsky.

“COVID has only magnified the inequality around housing, inequality around food security and income security,” says Redsky.

“The reality for many Indigenous families living in Winnipeg, is you’re worse off today than you were before COVID. We are barely keeping up as an organization trying to make ends meet for people and just their food security, says Redsky on the latest episode of Face to Face with host Dennis Ward.

“We have now over 160,000 hampers that have been delivered to families.”

Providing food during the pandemic to Indigenous families who either cannot physically go to the grocery store or afford the food in it, is just one of the many issues Ma Mawi has been trying to address.

Redsky says the pandemic has increased people’s income insecurity, the potential for violence in homes, and people’s mental health problems.

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In the background of all of that is housing. Redsky says there is an affordable housing crisis in Winnipeg.

“If you don’t have a safe place to live, how do you go beyond planning anything else?” she asks.

This winter, like every winter, there were calls in Winnipeg for urgent action on ending homelessness.

A group of organizations, led by Ma Mawi has come together with a project they hope will go beyond providing food and shelter for those without and address the root causes of why some people are homeless in the first place.

The Village Project will be a 22 bed, communal living centre that will include culture, language, and ceremony while creating a safe space so people can take their first steps on their healing journey.

According to the last street census conducted in Winnipeg in 2018, 66 per cent of people experiencing homelessness were Indigenous. Seventy-four per cent of the youth who were homeless were Indigenous.

The census also found that more than half of the people in Winnipeg who were homeless had been in the care of child and family services at some point in their lives.

“The Village Project is that opportunity to bring together our knowledge keepers, our ceremonies, our culture, our language and create that safe space for our relatives who are homeless so they can take those really important and vital, first steps on their healing journey. Which can be very scary for people if they’re not in a supportive environment,” says Redsky.

Redsky says the post-pandemic, new normal cannot be a return to the way things were before COVID. She says it must look completely different, where the most vulnerable are cared for, first.

Earlier this year, Redsky was named one of Manitoba’s 150 Women Trailblazers by the Nellie McClung Foundation.

She is also a recipient of the Governor General Award for her work with Indigenous families and women rights.

Redsky also sits on one of the working groups crafting the federal government’s action plan in response to the MMIWG National Inquiry’s calls for justice.

She says an update is coming in June, two years after the final report was handed over to the federal government.

“We are all working towards coming up with a national action plan that is going to represent the voices, honour the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirited, LGBTQQ2IA and it will be a representation of all of that,” says Redsky.

“We have been working weekly and dedicated to coming up with those solutions, those grassroots and community based solutions to stopping and preventing this genocide from continuing to happen in Canada.”

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