Renovation work continues at UNFC’s new Mowat Ave. home

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

It’s been years – even decades – in the making, but the United Native Friendship Centre (UNFC) has moved into its new building and is hard at work turning it into the home the centre has always dreamed of.

UNFC executive director Sheila McMahon gave the Times a special behind-the-scenes tour of the new building, formerly the Resolute mill office and lab space on Mowat Avenue, last week, showing off the significant changes they have already made, some of the space they have left to tackle, and what it all means for the future of the UNFC as an organization and the programs they offer.

The UNFC accomplished the move to the new Mowat Avenue building in June. Over the course of about a week UNFC staff, along with hired movers, collected all of their furnishings and belongings and brought them down to the new building. The move itself has brought disparate programs the UNFC offered from several buildings together under one roof, with the remainder of the child and family programs now moved over to their new centre on McIrvine Road. The new 30,000 square foot space the UNFC is in now is a dramatic upgrade from their old buildings in terms of useable space.

“Our main building on Portage, that was about 7,000 square feet,” McMahon said.

“The Circle of Life Centre was about the same. And with our childcare space, that’s even more room.”

That increase means different programs and initiatives the UNFC has, like those aimed at homeless individuals, seniors and the general public have a larger space to make use of. McMahon noted that the new pantry space they have for storing food for their homelessness programs has more than doubled, and there is a new useable space for seniors that includes a kitchenette area for individual and group use. Having all of the programs working together under one roof will also allow for more collaboration and teamwork between different programs, allowing for everyone to receive more support. The move will also allow the UNFC to hold community meetings in its own space instead of renting out other larger spaces like the Metis Hall or La Place Rendez-Vous. Additionally, McMahon said there are plans to reach out to other community groups and develop new partnerships and have different services come into the UNFC.

“I think we’ll be able to offer more holistic health support for our community in these spaces,” McMahon said.

McMahon noted that the work to transform the building into something that suits the UNFC is ongoing. The centre is looking into installing an elevator in the building, among other improvements.

“We did work in two stages, and we’re still not finished,” McMahon explained.

“Downstairs in the basement we built a big community room, there’s a nice kitchen down there. We have different wings, like one for our high school program, we have our seniors area, and all of our youth program offices are down [in another wing.]”

Overall, McMahon explained that it’s taken over a year and a half for the UNFC to get into the new building since they began the purchase process, and the building represents the first opportunity the organization has had to find a building that was large enough to cover their needs in terms of space and programming requirements.

Now that COVID-19 restrictions have begun to lift in Ontario, McMahon noted that many of their programs are moving back into gear. However, even in the midst of a pandemic and moving to a new building, the UNFC has continued to offer many of its programs, serving to continue to fulfill their mission statement in uncertain and difficult times.

“We’ve never stopped providing services to the community,” McMahon said.

“Of course we couldn’t do any group programming, but now our youth programs are out there, meeting the kids outside. Last week our youth programs had a fish fry for the youth and families at the Point. They have baseball, a running program, and we’re receiving lots of good feedback from parents because the kids haven’t been able to go to school, so having an opportunity for the youth to go and join and do something active out in the community, I think it’s helping mental health, getting out there and socializing more. That’s what excited me about finally starting to open up.”

McMahon noted that one of her hopes with the move to the new building is being able to reinforce to members of the community that the UNFC is available to everyone, or that they even exist in Fort Frances in the first place.

“The UNFC is a larger organization that services the community and I would like to tell people that we’re here and it’s an invitation to stop in,” she said.

“It still baffles me that some people say, ‘oh, I didn’t know you had a friendship centre in Fort Frances,’ and they live in the community. That always baffles me when I hear that, because my staff are all over the community. I think providing that opportunity and inviting people in, to invite the whole community to come and have a look. We’ll give you a tour and talk about our services, because we don’t only serve the Indigenous population, we service the Metis, non-Indigenous, that need help. We’ve never refused to help anybody in need.”

The current discussions around reconciliation in Canada, in light of the rediscovered unmarked graves at residential school sites, further highlights the need for cooperative community spaces like the United Native Friendship Centre. The need was further highlighted in a local capacity following the decision to begin the process of renaming the pair of Colonization Roads here in town, which McMahon said stirred up some hurtful comments and sentiments.

“As an Indigenous person, it’s tough when you see things written that aren’t so nice,” she said.

“It’s tough when you hear ‘just get over it, that wasn’t my family,’ and we’re not saying that. Reconciliation has to start with recognition that there’s a need for reconciliation, and I think that’s an important message.”

McMahon said there are several events actively being planned by the UNFC to celebrate the move to their new home. The first is a Grand Opening celebration for both the new Mowat Avenue location as well as for their childcare building on McIrvine road, which McMahon said is tentatively being planned for September to give the public a chance to see the hard work that has been done to get both buildings up and running. A second event being planned is a garage sale, to clear out some of the leftover furniture and office equipment and other remnants of Resolute’s time in the building, which McMahon said will help to raise funds to purchase items for the UNFC’s various programs.