Essay submitted by Eleanor Thompson
Co-Founder, Urban Circle Training Centre
In the 45 years I have worked and lived in Winnipeg’s North End, I have seen firsthand the deep racial, economic and spatial inequities that divide our city and province due to the ravages of our long history of colonialism in Canada.
What inspires hope, however, is the growing awareness of the insidious ways these structural inequities are perpetuated, the insistence of our young people to learn the truth about our history, and the resolve of countless members of Canadian society to keep the urgent conversations of reconciliation in the forefront of public discourse and action.
I continue to be inspired by what happens when we work together as a community for the benefit of all.
For the last 30 years I have had the honour and privilege of working closely with Indigenous Elders and community leaders to establish and sustain Urban Circle Training Centre. This Indigenous-led not-for-profit is an accredited adult learning centre grounded in the teachings of the ancestors.
In the late 1990s our Elders determined it was time for Urban Circle to have a permanent home and I will never forget the day that we learned of our successful application to The Winnipeg Foundation for a sizable grant for this project. With The Winnipeg Foundation and the Bill and Shirley Loewen Foundation as a lead funders, we were able to secure the additional funding required from the private and public sector to revitalize a boarded up building on Selkirk Avenue and transform it into a state-of-the-art educational centre reflecting the beauty of Indigenous culture.
In 2007 Elder Stella Blackbird envisioned an intergenerational children’s centre where the children of parents studying on Selkirk Avenue could be surrounded by the love of their parents, grandparents, Elders, and extended community. Stella’s dream was that children would never again have to feel the shame that she and many others experienced in the residential school system, but would instead have the opportunity to proudly embrace their identities, culture and language from the earliest stage of life. Once again, The Winnipeg Foundation was a lead funder in this project and the Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre officially opened in 2012. The realization of Stella’s vision stands as an example of ways we can redress longstanding issues of injustice in our community.
A call went out from The Winnipeg Foundation in 2019 for proposals focusing on truth and reconciliation following the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. We were delighted to learn Urban Circle’s grant proposal was approved and that our Elders’ dream of expanding land-based learning opportunities would be realized. Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and staff from University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, Red River College, Urban Circle, Seven Oaks School Division, and Makoonsag, among others, have begun to engage in respectful dialogue, relationship-building and ceremony led by the Elders.
These examples demonstrate The Winnipeg Foundation’s commitment to creating space for Indigenous self-determination and governance, and for creating opportunities for the rebuilding of relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.
As historians Mary Jane McCallum and Adele Perry remind us, the structures of injustice and inequity are not single events, but are deeply embedded in the systems, institutions and structures we have created. May we continue this life-giving work of seeking truth and reconciliation over the next 100 years, so that future generations can reap the benefits of our collective courage to enact the Calls to Action, for the healing of our entire community and Mother Earth.
Eleanor Thompson has lived and worked in the field of education and community development in Winnipeg’s North End for more than 45 years. In 1990, working closely with Indigenous Elders, Eleanor co-founded Urban Circle Training Centre, a not-for-profit Adult Learning Centre offering Red River College-accredited postsecondary education, training and employment opportunities to Indigenous women, men, and youth. Guided by the teachings of the Elders, Urban Circle’s holistic model continues to lead to the successful graduation and employment of hundreds of Indigenous students who are leaders in our community today. Eleanor raised millions to revitalize boarded up buildings on Selkirk Avenue, which today house Urban Circle and Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre. The transformation of these buildings to reflect the beauty and strength of Indigenous culture were important catalysts in the revitalization of Selkirk Avenue and the establishment of an educational hub.
In 2014, Eleanor received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for service to her community, and in 2016 received Red River College’s highest academic honour for the lasting impact she has had on children and families. Eleanor is married to Dudley Thompson and they have two sons.