Huu-ay-aht First Nations is celebrating the creation of Oomiiqsu, a unique “Mother’s Centre” that will provide housing for Indigenous women and children in Port Alberni.
Members of Huu-ay-aht and other dignitaries joined an official funding announcement for the project at the Port Alberni Lawn Bowling Club on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The province will be investing as much as $5 million for Huu-ay-aht First Nations to cover initial operating costs for the Oomiiqsu Mother’s Centre. BC Housing is investing approximately $10 million through the Building BC: Women’s Transition Housing Fund and will provide $88,000 in annual operating funding. The Ministry of Education and Child Care is providing nearly $800,000 for child care spaces.
Oomiiqsu is modelled after the Vancouver Aboriginal Mother’s Centre, which was established in 2002 in Vancouver’s east end.
Oomiiqsu—meaning “mother”—is an Indigenous-led model of care developed by Huu-ay-aht in consultation with its members. The two-storey transition housing, child care and support centre will provide a safe and culturally appropriate home for as many as 48 mothers and children leaving violence or abuse, facing mental-health and addictions challenges, poverty or other trauma. It will be managed and operated by the Huu-ay-aht government’s Child and Family Wellness Department.
The centre will include private bedrooms and washrooms, as well as shared living, kitchen and dining spaces and laundry facilities. Residents will have access to on-site child care that will include eight spaces for children as old as three and 16 spaces for children 30 months to school age. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ Child and Family Wellness Department will also have office space on the first floor of the building.
Huu-ay-aht will operate the building, providing support services 24 hours a day and seven days a week to Indigenous mothers experiencing violence. Wraparound supports provided by the province will give families the best chance of staying together and will help address systemic factors leading to the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care.
It has been a long journey to create Oomiiqsu, said Huu-ay-aht First Nations elected councillor Edward Johnson last Tuesday. The journey began in 2016 with the Huu-ay-aht Social Services Project, which led to a report with 30 recommendations to keep families connected and bring children out of government care. This report was formed through the voices of Huu-ay-aht citizens. Oomiiqsu was one of these recommendations.
“We’re wanting to create a better future for our children,” said Johnson. “At the time, there were about 50 children in care, and we were wanting to bring them home.”
Today, said Johnson, Huu-ay-aht is “hovering around” 20 children in some form of care.
Zoning amendments for building Oomiiqsu on a parcel of land on Kendall Avenue were approved by the City of Port Alberni in late May 2021.
Oomiiqsu is not just a response, said Johnson. It’s also a preventative measure, preventing the traumas that many Indigenous families have had to endure over the years by keeping them together, instead of tearing them apart.
“My mom and I could have benefited from a mother’s centre,” he said on Tuesday.
The project has involved a partnership between the province and Huu-ay-aht, as well as support from many other governments, Nuu-chah-nulth nations and various agencies in the Alberni Valley.
Josie Osborne, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, said that the project embodies the Nuu-chah-nulth concept of hishuk’ish tsawalk, or everything is one, because multiple partners are working towards the same goals.
“One of those goals is to turn the corner from a very dark history of separating children from families and culture, to one that is more generous, more humane,” Osborne said.
Murray Rankin, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, who also attended the announcement, said that Oomiiqsu involves a partnership of the kind that symbolizes “the future of reconciliation” in B.C.
“This is a tangible thing,” said Rankin. “It’s all about keeping children safe. It’s innovative, and it’s going to serve and meet the needs of Indigenous women and children on the ground in both child care and safe housing. It’s going to make such a difference in this community.”
“I’ve been to hundreds of announcements in my riding in the last seven years,” added a visibly emotional Gord Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni. “I haven’t been to anything more important than today. This project is going to save lives.”
Construction on the project will begin in 2023, and the centre is expected to open in summer 2024, said Johnson.