The proposed “Mothers’ Centre” on Kendall Avenue in Port Alberni. (PHOTO COURTESY HUU-AY-AHT FIRST NATIONS)

The proposed “Mothers’ Centre” on Kendall Avenue in Port Alberni. (PHOTO COURTESY HUU-AY-AHT FIRST NATIONS)

Huu-ay-aht First Nations prepare to build Oomiiqsu, a unique centre for mothers and children

Centre will include childcare centre, live-in housing units for young families

Huu-ay-aht First Nations and BC Housing have partnered to develop a unique, creative and culturally appropriate Mother Centre to keep Indigenous families together.

On May 25, Port Alberni city council voted to approve the zoning amendments and official community plan amendments for Oomiiqsu Mother Centre. The facility, located on 4305 Kendall Avenue, will provide housing and support services for Indigenous mothers and children. Oomiiqsu is the Nuu-chah-nulth word for “mother.”

Development planner Brian McLoughlin explained that Oomiiqsu will be a two-storey building with 16 living units, in addition to child-care spaces, administration offices and meeting rooms. Twelve of these units will be shared units, while four will be independent.

“The intent of the development is to address those existing gaps in child and family services,” said McLoughlin.

In 2016, Huu-ay-aht First Nations formed a panel to explore and recommend changes and improvements to child and family services for Huu-ay-aht families. The panel provided a report with 30 recommendations, and the Mothers’ Centre came out of these recommendations.

READ MORE: Huu-ay-aht First Nations commits $400k to help children

During a City of Port Alberni public hearing on May 13, Huu-ay-aht councillor Edward Johnson said that there is an over-representation of Indigenous children in care. According to the 2016 Canadian census, Indigenous children represented only 7.7 percent of all children under the age of 15 in Canada, but accounted for more than 50 percent of children in foster care.

“That statistic speaks for itself,” said Johnson. “This is a new model of care that’s going to bring more children home. It’s going to keep families together and it’s going to reduce those traumas to families.”

During the public hearing Oomiiqsu received several letters of support, including letters from the Port Alberni RCMP, School District 70, Island Health and a number of First Nations.

Oomiiqsu will provide a facility for mothers and their children (12 and under) to live in and receive wrap-around supports. The facility will provide a wide range of services, safe housing, mentorship and learning opportunities and supported and safe childcare. Oomiiqsu is based on traditional Huu-ay-aht teachings, with a focus on healing from intergenerational trauma through access to on-site programs and individual and group support. Elders and other community members will teach Nuu-chah-nulth language and share traditions, ceremonies, songs, drumming, dance, crafts and traditional food.

Huu-ay-aht will also operate its child and family wellness department from the location.

“It’s going to be more than four walls and a ceiling,” said Johnson. “It’s going to create healing, not only for Huu-ay-aht but for Nuu-chah-nulth and other surrounding nations.”

Oomiiqsu will also include a child care centre. On May 19, the province announced that it would be providing more than $700,000 in funding to BC Housing and Huu-ay-aht to create 24 child-care spaces at Oomiiqsu.

READ MORE: Port Alberni receives provincial funding for child-care spaces

For the child care centre, priority will be given to children living in Oomiiqsu. But Shannon Zimmerman, director of child and family wellness, says any empty spaces would be opened up to other Indigenous families, then to the general community.

“This program has given a lot of hope to the community,” Zimmerman said during the May 13 public hearing. “This means a lot to Nuu-chah-nulth families overall.”

BC Housing is the landowner and project funder, while Huu-ay-aht will operate and manage the facility. Tara Schmidt, BC Housing development manager, said that BC Housing chose the Kendall Avenue location largely because of its proximity to services. It is located on a public transit line and many amenities (such as Echo Centre and Bob Dailey Stadium) are within walking distance.

Construction is set to begin soon and is estimated to take 16 months.

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