The Gathering Centre: A place of friendship in Ontario’s North

In 1986, flooding from the Winisk River, near the coast of Hudson Bay, completely wiped out a Weenusk First Nation community. Two people died, and all but seven homes were destroyed. Shortly after, in an effort to prevent tragedies like this in the future, the community moved about 30 kilometers up river. With the support of the government and the Army, the First Nations community worked to rebuild the town. Today, located in Polar Bear Provincial Park, you’ll find Peawanuck.

Participants from the Gathering Place take a picture outdoorsThe Canadian Red Cross has been operating in the small community of 300 for about two years. One of the main programs the Red Cross runs is the “Gathering Centre,” which came about through consultations with the community, who wanted to focus on promoting social interaction among the elders.

The Gathering Centre hosts a wide range of activities for the community’s elders. While they’re all aimed at preventing social isolation and keeping the elders active, it’s worth noting that the elders in Peawanuck aren’t your typical seniors. Serenna Besserer, Canadian Red Cross assistant manager for James and Hudson bays, says “I’ve never seen elders like this. They show up to gatherings on their four wheelers!”

Even still, the activities at the Gathering Centre go a long way to help keep friendships among the elders strong, and ensure they keep moving. Exercise classes are popular, and are especially important in the winter months when temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius can make staying active difficult. Another popular activity is “Item Bingo”, where participants bring items from home as prizes. Past prizes have included handmade moose-hide mittens and goose, a traditional favourite food of the elders. In order to help pass along traditions to the younger generations, elders at the Gathering Centre also taught youth to make tamarack geese – a traditional craft made from the tamarack tree – for Aboriginal Day.

Gathering Place participants with four wheelersFor Indigenous people, the land is a sacred and special place. For this reason, another favourite activity for the Gathering Centre is venturing out to be closer to the land. Recently, the group went to the river for a picnic, an activity that many elders may not be able to do on their own. The group cooked a traditional meal of goose and caribou over the fire, and listened to step dance music.

Annie and Liza, two sisters who frequent the Gathering Centre, say they’re both extremely happy and grateful for the programs the Red Cross provides. “We love that the Gathering Centre gives us a chance to see each other, share stories and laugh together.” The two particularly enjoy having picnics on the land, and say they have the most fun at item bingo.

For many seniors, maintaining friendships and staying active can be difficult, especially in isolated places. For a place with such a strong sense of community, the Gathering Centre goes a long way to ensure the bonds among community members remain strong, and that the elders in Peawanuck stay healthy and active!

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