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Full Circle

Assiniboine Credit Union member Eleanor Thompson helps guide Indigenous students as they gain skills, self-respect and hope at Winnipeg’s Urban Circle Training Centre.

There is a prophesy shared among many First Nations — the Anishinaabe call it the Eighth Fire — that foretells the dawning of a new day when all people come together in a relationship of mutual respect based on the ancient knowledge of how we are all linked to one another and nature itself is the circle of life. Families will be reunited, old wounds healed and the process of decolonization will begin.

“You can feel that here at Urban Circle, that transformative power at work,” says Eleanor Thompson, a member of Assiniboine Credit Union (111,00 mem- bers, $4.4 billion in assets). The Urban Circle Training Centre is an astonishingly successful adult education centre in Winnipeg’s North End that Thompson, director of finance and development, co-founded in 1991. It’s a school that changes lives — hers included.

Urban Circle’s success can be measured in stark numbers: more than 150 Indigenous students are now enrolled annually in certified training programs (Nursing Assistant, Educational Assistant and Family Support Worker, all partnered with Red River College, in addition to Grade 12 completion and a new Red Seal skilled trades apprenticeship program) that lead to full-time employment or post-secondary education. The graduation rate, at 85-87 percent, is among the highest in the country, says Thompson. It is even more remarkable when contrasted with the well-documented education gap that exists between Aboriginals and other Canadians – a shameful inequality highlighted in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action. The document presents solutions to redress the legacy of the abuse inflicted on Indigenous peoples through the Indian residential school system.

But the key to Urban Circle’s success is the many nourishing ways in which Indigenous culture is woven into every aspect of the curriculum, from the physical design of the building (shaped like a turtle) and classroom settings (circular seating) to the regular ceremonies (sweat lodges, naming ceremonies, smudging every morning), as well as an empowering, four-week Life Skills class at the start of each program. “The third week is devoted entirely to every person telling their stories in the circle of life,” Thompson explains. “That forms a very close-knit group because there is a lot of pain that is shared and a lot of pride as well. It’s a rich, rich time.”

“The third week is devoted entirely to every person telling their stories in the circle of life.” – Eleanor Thompson

Urban Circle grew from humble beginnings as a second-hand clothing store. Thompson was a coordinator at the time and helped the female volunteers secure funding for a six-month training program in retail and finance management. “That was their dream and all 12 of them got jobs and went on to other careers,” says Thompson, who is reluctant to take much credit, referring to her supporting role as that of a “midwife” and deferring to the guidance of Indigenous elders.

The elders, however, must have seen something special in Thompson. She recalls her first meeting with Stella Blackbird in 1995. They were at Medicine Eagle Camp near Riding Mountain National Park in southern Manitoba where Urban Circle conducts its land-based learning. Thompson was invited into the sweat lodge to help with the naming ceremonies. Later, a colleague suggested Thompson return to the lodge with a tobacco offering because Blackbird had received her spirit name – Sunrise Woman.

“I didn’t even know I could receive a spirit name,” says Thompson, who is of Scottish-Presbyterian-Methodist heritage. “In our culture, we never really speak about our own gifts. So it was a journey for me, to learn that we must grow into our name and honour our gifts with humility and grace, knowing that they come from the creator.” Urban Circle’s ray of light has shone into the dark corners of Winnipeg’s North End, lifting the larger community in the process. Back in the late 1990s, when the elders decided it was time to make a permanent home, they found an old, boarded-up Woolworth’s building on Selkirk Avenue, a desolate area riddled with gang activity and dominated by the infamous Merchants Hotel.

After being rejected by other financial institutions, Assiniboine Credit Union stepped up to give Urban Circle the loan it needed for a capital project to renovate the building, which turned out to be a catalyst for closing the hotel and revitalizing the neighbourhood. “This could not have happened without Assiniboine,” Thompson says of the credit union, which last year made a public commitment to reconciliation.

Assiniboine, which helps Urban Circle students learn money management skills through its Savings Circle program, also assisted in raising funds for the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre, where elders teach youngsters how to drum, sing and speak Indigenous languages while their parents attend classes next door.

“Whereas before, families were ripped apart and children taken from their parents and their grandparents, now the learning takes place with all generations present,” says Thompson, who sees the strength of the community growing stronger every day.

“To be able to use my gifts in a community that I love and feel I belong to, it’s such an honour. And I think that is really the hope for all nations, to in some way be part of this reclamation of identity.” ◊