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Op-ed: Neechi Commons has become a vital hub for community

July 12, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 12, 2017 by Joannie Halas, professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba.

It is with tremendous affection and gratitude that I write about Neechi Commons. As a non-Indigenous university educator engaged in community-based research with Indigenous youth in north Winnipeg and beyond, I am grateful for the incredible example that Neechi Commons provides for everyone in our community.

I am grateful that the young people involved in the University of Manitoba’s Rec and Read/Aboriginal Youth Mentorship Programs have learned about ethical social enterprise through our partnership with Neechi Commons and, before that, Neechi Foods Co-op.

I appreciate how the Aboriginal-owned worker co-operative supports community economic development; how it has become an employment hub for our Indigenous youth mentors who seek entry level jobs within their neighbourhood. I appreciate that when we have Indigenous youth visit from First Nations communities up north or from across Canada, their cultural identities are affirmed whenever they visit the store. There is a sense of pride that emerges the minute they see themselves represented in the workers there. They hear the laughter and feel at home; after all, to paraphrase a sign in the store, where’s the panic when you’ve got bannock?

I greatly respect the commitment to health and wellness; how store staff has collaborated with my university colleagues to promote diabetes prevention through (national-award-winning) educational signage on their store shelves or walking programs in the neighbourhood.

How many Winnipeggers know that the workers always have provided a subsidized fruit basket for neighbourhood children? How they have never sold cigarettes, despite the significant loss in potential revenue? How their revolving local art displays on the second floor add a community dynamic that enhances the feelings of cultural affirmation that our young people seek?

What they offer is integrity and a social-determinants-of-health approach to community development that benefits all of Winnipeg.

I love how I am always greeted with smiles and a friendly “hello” whenever I enter the store. I love that I can shop for Indigenous artwork and crafts that are locally made; that not only can I buy a signed copy of Beatrice Mosionier’s April Raintree, but I might even meet Beatrice when I grab a bite to eat over lunch.

I love the Bisonberry Restaurant on the second floor, with its excellent food and sunny views of Main Street below. Talia’s Original remains my go-to early-morning breakfast. And for lunch, I appreciate that the pickerel burger I order is prepared and delivered by local community members who are working hard to transform this central Winnipeg neighbourhood.

I have attended special events and marvelled at the revival of Indigenous cultural pride so integral to reconciliation in our community. I appreciate how hard staff has worked to establish a catering service and our programs will always order from Neechi Commons because we love their bison stew, bannock pizza and banana bread.

We will always shop at Neechi Commons because we know that with every purchase, every penny contributes to a vision of Indigenous community revitalization that is grounded in courage, self-determination and the traditional cultural values of respect, caring and sharing.

I know the store is having a difficult time. Its dedicated staff and board of directors have given heart and soul to make our community better and like so many others, I am grateful for their principled leadership. Whatever the outcome of their July 12 deadline for refinancing, I look forward to many more years of partnership in support of Winnipeg’s Indigenous youth.

Shopping at Neechi Commons provides all of us a meaningful pathway on the road to reconciliation — and the parking is great!


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