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A place to call home at Suswin Village

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One of the first residents of Suswin Village, Willie Daigle speaks at the grand opening, expressing that the last four months have been the best he has had in a long time.

By Kelly Anne Smith

NORTH BAY — “You can tell a lot of heart went into it,” says Willie Daigle, one of the first residents to live at Suswin Village. Daigle took part in the grand opening on July 7, right across the street from the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre.

Overwhelmed with pride and relief to celebrate the community and those that helped, Executive Director Kathy Fortin talked about sitting with the residents and hearing they each have a story.

“Every person in this world deserves a home.”

The president of the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre Maurice Switzer agrees.

“We are so grateful that we’ve been able to send this signal to our community that we have an obligation to look after and to support people who have fallen on hard times. That’s everybody’s obligation.”

Willie watched the construction of Suswin Village for four years. Today, the building houses 10 men, including Willie who has lived at Suswin for four months and 20 additional men are to be welcomed. It is the first time in Canada that a Friendship Centre built and manages housing for the people served at the centre.

Suswin Village was designed by Larocque Elder Architects, an Indigenous-led architectural firm with Indigenous values, design elements, and environmental attention. In her speech, Fortin explained 16 wells were drilled down 400 ft for geothermal heat pumps.

“We put cedar and tobacco down there to ensure this place would come along as it is.”

She foresees solar panels on the roof in the spring.

Fortin praised Executive Assistant Lori Ann Stanger and “calm and cool” Leo DeLoyde (who volunteers 10-4 everyday) for being her solid team while building Suswin Village.

“Without good housing, people can’t lead good lives,” says DeLoyde.

A citizen of Aundeck Omni Kaning, Dawn Mahdabee Leach is a member of the Steering Committee for Indigenous Housing Innovation Initiative Program and she spoke on the importance of caring for others to lift them up as they move on in life.

“As a child, when I grew up, there were a couple of times that we were homeless. When I walked in and I saw this and I thought, ‘Ah, it would have been nice to have a place like this for our family.’ I know the difference it can make in the lives of individuals having a place to live and to have the wraparound services.”

On the National Housing Council, Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services Chair Sylvia Maracle commended the leadership at the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre for the initiative in helping people be homed.

“You’re creating change, social change that will be ongoing that it will change the landscape. You’ve done it because you believe, because you’re a community, because there is a space for everyone.”

North Bay city councillors Mark King and Lana Mitchell were in attendance, as was Judge George Valin representing the Bishop Alexander Carter Foundation, which provided bedding for Suswin Village.

At 54-years old, Willie Daigle from Garden River First Nation is filled with gratitude and hope for the future.

“I’m so grateful, that goes out to Suswin Village here. I was on the street for eight years, homeless for seven. Now I have a home; I have to call this my nest. Suswin means nest. There’s not a day that don’t go by that I don’t say thanks to the building. My gratitude goes out to all the people that were involved in building this building.”

Willie touts the relapse prevention support.

“That’s given me tools for my toolbox so I can work on myself.”

He is working with other agencies in North Bay such as on Overdose Awareness Day on August 31. He also belongs to lived experience/experts by experience at Nipissing University. And Willie started a new job last week and is on his way to Nova Scotia for the National Homelessness Conference with Kathy Fortin.

The grounds of Suswin are planted with birch trees, some already with bird feeders that will soon provide a canopy for shade. Roses grow along the street-side and lilacs line the fence. There are pots of tomatoes and squash, beans, and lettuce growing in planters. There is a circular seating area for gathering.

Manager Beckie Mathies says the residents are receiving psychosocial support programs and groups.

“We also had a cultural teaching this week where we had an Elder come in and give the guys a teaching. We do daily smudges. We also have our art group and social recreational programming. We’ve been everywhere from Callander Bay docks last weekend fishing with the guys to playing pool at the local pool hall.”

Becky says there is a basic screening for people wanting to apply for Suswin Village.

“Now, our interview actually includes peer residents so they help us in the selection committee, which is excellent. It’s proven to be a great tool. They make good choices.”

Executive Director Fortin calls Willie instrumental to her and the staff at Suswin Village and the residents because he always has such good words to say.

Willie says his life has changed in many ways after living on the streets of North Bay for eight years to having a supportive home at Suswin Village.

“Spiritual, physical, mentally – there I can see it’s changed my life quite a bit. Because you are stuck in those predicaments where you are homeless and you are out on the street. Everyday is a struggle out there.”

Willie calls the last four months the best he has had in a long time. He follows the rules such as the 10:00 PM curfew.

“We also have chores. It’s a time to reflect on ourselves, to better ourselves; to know that we have to do chores when we leave here when we get established in our own place. That helps me with life skills that we have to have. As long as I keep building on myself and keep doing the things I’m supposed to be doing, I think everything will be just fine.”

In the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre July Newsletter, Willie writes of being hopeful for a future where he will make a difference. And he asks, “As a Canadian citizen, isn’t it against my constitutional rights to be homeless?”

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