A soft opening was held on Thursday morning for the Nshwaasnangong Child Care and Family Centre in what marks the launch of the first Indigenous-led family centre in London, Ont., along with one of the city’s first Indigenous-led child care centres.
Dozens were on hand as officials welcomed the new multi-purpose site on Hill Street with ceremonial prayers, drumming, dancing and speeches.
Set to welcome children aged 0-6, Nshwaasnangong’s licensed child care centre will provide 88 spots in a space that aims to honour and express diverse identities among Indigenous people.
The family centre will also provide culturally-relevant EarlyON programming in-person at Nshwaasnangong, in sites throughout the community and virtually over Facebook.
Nshwaasnangong is the result of a collaborative effort led by the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre (SOAHAC), who partnered with the City of London and Ontario’s Ministry of Education.
The idea sprang from an Indigenous planning committee called the Journey Together group, which formed in 2017.
After consulting with local Indigenous families in London and Middlesex County, Journey Together discovered a shared dream it hoped to turn into reality with an Indigenous-led and culturally-relevant centre that could provide programming for children and families.
The following year, a proposal for a child care and family centre was accepted by the Ministry of Education. The property, which formerly housed St. John Catholic French Immersion School, was then purchased by the City of London for $1-million before it was transferred to SOAHAC.
“We saw a place to rekindle our language, honour the teachings of our ancestors and live in a balance with Mother Earth,” said Jan Martin, the director of Indigenous relations for SOAHAC.
The name, Nshwaasnangong, was gifted to the centre in an Anishinaabe Naming Ceremony by Richard Assinewai, a visiting healer from Wikwemikong, a First Nation in northern Ontario. The name translates to “place of the eighth star” in Anishinaabemowin.
“(Nshwaasnangong) refers to the original eighth star in the Big Dipper that fell to the Earth and became the Anishinaabe people,” Martin added.
“The name honours us with a great responsibility for caring and sharing the gifts of the Sky World, including culture, teachings and language for children and families who will attend the centre.”
Indigenous-led firm Two Row Architect incorporated Indigenous cultures and teachings into Nshwaasnangong’s design.
“(The facility) has a very unique design, intentionally shaped like a turtle to connect with all people living on Turtle Island and with a curved roof that is lower in some spaces to make children feel protected,” Martin said.
The interior features plenty of natural light shining through a ring of windows near the ceiling, allowing children to “experience time and the change of seasons, helping them understand the cyclical nature of the Indigenous world-view,” Martin added.
Nshwaasnangong’s yard is also rich with a lush green space that’s ripe with opportunities for children to learn about gardening and agriculture. Play pens filled with wooden features can also be found along both sides of the facilities.
Emmaline Beauchamp, an Anishinaabemowin language consultant at Nshwaasnangong, says the space will provide needs that weren’t being met previously.
“We all know how much intergenerational trauma the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island walk with,” Beauchamp said.
“In this space, we hope to share regenerational healing, regenerational learning, regenerational love with humility, truth, honesty, courage, love, wisdom and respect.”
Thursday’s soft opening also featured remarks from Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, whose ministry, along with the federal government, helped pay for Nshwaasnangong’s creation.
“You, the taxpayers, invested over $5.8-million in capital funding towards the completion of this incredible project, in addition to the ongoing operating funding, to provide families and children with the high-quality opportunities that they deserve with respect to child care,” Lecce said.
Registration for child care at the centre is at nearly 60 per cent capacity with spaces expected to open in mid-October.
First Nations, Metis and Inuit families can sign up for a child care waitlist at Nshwaasnangong’s website.