WINNIPEG — Fifteen Manitobans received the Governor General’s Award for outstanding indigenous leadership Jan. 9 at Government House in Winnipeg, an honour initiated by former Governor General David Johnston to honour 150 such Canadians across the country to mark Canada’s 150th year in 2017.
According to the office of the Governor General, the awards are for “dedicated Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders who are working to strengthen urban and rural Indigenous communities and create an environment in which reconciliation is possible.”
“What you have done has saved lives and changed lives,” said Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Janice Filmon as she bestowed the medals on behalf of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette. “You are builders of understanding and hope. This is a celebration of services and leadership and how we can build a better country for all of us. Canada is better today because of your effort.”
Among eight recipients of the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers was Philip Chiappetta, executive director of Rossbrook House, a Winnipeg drop-in centre where children and youth can be safe, play and learn as an alternative to the dangers of the streets. Rossbrook is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The centre recruits staff from the young people who attend on a regular basis.
Rossbrook House was founded in1976 by Sister Geraldine MacNamara, SNJM, and a group of inner-city young people. Chiappetta started at Rossbrook in 1980 lending a hand wherever he could, working mostly with teens. Today, there might be 40 to 50 kids at the centre on a winter day after school — about half of them under 13, and almost all of them indigenous.
Chiappetta said a survey by the local Social Planning Council shows poverty rates in the neighbourhood are “sky high,” and although the number of two-parent families is increasing, there are many single-parent households, and a lot of kids live with grandparents or other relatives.Things can get crowded.
“We’re like a big living room for the kids,” he said, with televisions, video games, and board games overseen by volunteers who also run a homework program.
Chiappetta said high school students in the area are four times less likely to graduate compared to the rest of Winnipeg, and, of those who do graduate, few will go on to university. “It’s something we’re always working at,” he said, adding that some young mothers will return to school when they are able.
For some, “it’s a chaotic life,” he said; “they’re not feeling comfortable in school.” The intergenerational trauma documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “is real,” said Chiappetta. “People have so internalized their pain they don’t even know they are in pain.” He said poverty and housing are becoming an issue for everyone, not just indigenous people: “People become homeless and they are thrown into chaos.” Chiappetta says that most people who have a good job and a good home had the support of the families they grew up in.
“We need to address poverty as a society,” he said. “Minimum wage is a survival wage. We need some kinds of universal living income so people can have a decent place to live and not be stressed to death.” He said a big part of indigenous homelessness is the high rate of First Nations children in the care of Child and Family Services (CFS): “There is a strong correlation between foster care and homelessness. They are almost released into homelessness when they age out of care” at the age of 18, without a family and without the life skills to make it on their own. But, he added, there is a lot of advocate work being done with CFS to improve the system.
“There’s still a ton of racism,” said Chiappetta. “It’s kind of in Canadian culture. You don’t see indigenous people. They are not visibly present in the economy as they have to be for people to think it’s a normal thing. People think that can be overcome in a generation, but that’s just not realistic.“
As far as the dangers of the street, he said, there are fewer kids sniffing glue, but mostly because there are other drugs available. And he has seen firsthand the epidemic of methamphetamine.
But, Chiappetta said, there is hope “in each generation getting a stronger recognition of their own culture so people are proud of it and kids have a better sense of themselves. You see young people believing in the future and being proud of their heritage.The shame is lifting, to a degree.”
Chiappetta said business and community groups work hard on training and employment programs such as Resource Assistant for Youth (Ray), the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, and the Spence Neighbourhood Association.
“Little benchmarks have been achieved,” Chiappetta said, with nutritious food available for kids in many non-profit community programs, so in 40 years the incidence of diabetes might decline.
“A hopeful future will be based on strong indigenous leadership and a sense of worth being developed in young kids, and a lot of community organizations doing a lot of good work.”
The Governor General’s Awards were presented in two categories: the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers was also presented to Michael Patrick Belhumeur, Lucille Bruce, David Chartrand, Hazel and Jim Corman, Greg Shedden, and Harold Westdal; the Meritorious Service Decoration was presented to Mitch Bourbonniere, Michael Redhead Champagne, James Favel and Larry Morrissette, Althea Guiboche, Ry Moran, and Diane Louise Roussin.