The Indigenous (Indian) Family Centre (IFC) was established as an outreach of the Christian Reformed Church in 1974. For four decades now, staff and community people have worked together, creating a Centre that promotes healing, spiritual growth, cultural renewal and rediscovery, leadership development, family support, and an environment in which people are accepted and empowered.
IFC is located in Winnipeg’s northend, an area of the city often associated with high levels of poverty, violence, poor housing, substance abuse, gang activity, and unemployment. Aboriginal Canadians make up a high percentage of the population, along with newcomers to Canada and some long-time residents from the earlier waves of Eastern European immigrants. The effects of racism can be witnessed in many of the lives of the people who come to the Centre. In the midst of what some would consider to be an undesirable neighbourhood, IFC has been a place of welcome and refuge, and a place of healing. The strength, beauty of spirit and tremendous courage of many northend residents contributes to the vitality of the community life that has characterized IFC.
Over the years many different projects and programs have been initiated at the Indigenous Family Centre: employment training programs (such as Anishinabe RESPECT); community development initiatives; networking and support for coalitions among agencies; spiritual and cultural renewal; activities promoting social justice; as well as individual healing, growth and development. Programs have been offered for all generations, often for the whole family, but also specifically for children, adults, and women. The Centre has provided a place for people, including youth, locally and from across Canada, to meet and work directly with Aboriginal people, learning about Aboriginal culture and offering Christian service in return. (Click here to see a video from Summer Staff 2013)
God’s Spirit has been, and continues to be at work in our Centre. It is a place where people can experience God’s unconditional love and acceptance, a place where promise and healing and wholeness are embraced.
Many people have participated as staff in the ministry of IFC, contributing their gifts and talents to the development of a working and worshipping community.
Henk DeBruyn was appointed as the first Director in 1974 and remained as Director and Pastor for 26 years, retiring in January, 2000. In Henk’s words, “The Centre has always been about presence. In the north end, anyone can find free clothes or a hot meal, but what people need is the gift of presence, a willingness to simply be.” Henk worked with others to ensure that when people came to the Centre in search of a phone, a cup of tea or a listening ear that they found a gentle spirit, a welcoming atmosphere, and the still, small voice of God offering love and compassion.
Henk was born in Lemmer, The Netherlands on January 18, 1935. He immigrated to Canada in 1956. He earned theology degrees and served as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in Fredericton, NB, Windsor, ON, and Detroit, Michigan before arriving in Winnipeg. His influence on the development of IFC and among the ecumenical and Aboriginal communities in Manitoba was profound. Even after his retirement, the community at Indian Family Centre continued to be at the centre of his life. Henk died at the age of 76 on February 21, 2011.
Jeanet Sybenga followed Henk as the Director, officially starting in the position in November 1999 and she served for 10 years until her tragic death from cancer October 16, 2009 at the age of 49.
Jeanet was born in Sarnia, Ontario. She brought with her to IFC experience working in other inner city organizations. While in the position of Director she earned a theological degree from the University of Winnipeg. Tremendously gifted as a pastor and shepherd, her gentleness allowed people to open up and find hope and healing. At her memorial service, Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, Lead Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining the effects of Indian Residential Schools on Aboriginal people, praised the work that Jeanet had accomplished. He said that the Indigenous Family Centre embodied the work of the Commission, and was a place of truth and reconciliation.
The grief for the community was deepened by the simultaneous loss of another staff member, Brenda MacLean. Brenda and Jeanet had been a dynamic team for four years. Brenda was a direct descendant of Joseph Brant and also traced her history from the African slaves in the USA. Her passion for north end residents was evident to everyone who came through the doors. So too was her outspoken manner. She told it like it was, and called people to live to their fullest potential as intended to by God.
Both women served on various community groups and embodied the proverb, “when the righteous flourish the city rejoices.” They were instrumental, for example, in starting the National Aboriginal Day celebration in the north end when they noticed that most of the city’s celebrations were inaccessible to vulnerable local residents. The annual celebration continues today.
In mourning these losses the community wanted to honour the commitment of the women by carrying on, strengthening the ministry of the Centre. Michele Visser-Wikkerink began as acting Executive Director during Jeanet’s illness, later being appointed to the position permanently. Under her leadership at IFC, much of the vision birthed and nurtured by Henk and Jeanet has flourished.
Michele’s roots are in southern Ontario, the daughter of Dutch immigrants. Growing up in the Christian Reformed tradition she absorbed the gospel mandate to put faith into action. Michele began her work at about the same time that the Canadian government issued a formal apology to First Nation people for the harm caused through the Indian Residential Schools. Many of tragedies and abuse experienced at the schools, run by both churches and the government, have come to light. Reconciliation has become an important theme in the work of IFC in this period. Stories continue to be told as a way to heal relationships between Aboriginal and European cultures, and to heal relationships between Christians and the churches.
Early on Michele had a dream of incorporating beading and other handicrafts into the life of IFC. A few programs were held, but nothing clicked until Janessa Giesbrecht, who was enrolled in a diploma for community development at Red River’s School of Indigenous Education did a practicum with IFC. The two women shared a vision for a small business using a social enterprise model (click here to read more). In 2013 the Moccasin and Beading program began as Janessa was hired as the Textile and Traditional Handcraft Social Enterprise Coordinator. The business will offer employment to area crafters and enable IFC to be more financially self-sufficient. Moccasins and other handicrafts can be ordered and purchased directly from IFC. This is a new kind of venture for the Centre, but in keeping with long held values to bring dignity and well-being to people.
Forty years ago it was unheard of for a Christian organization to embrace expressions of Aboriginal spirituality, but from the start, the people of IFC decided that they would find points of connection. Rather than seeking to impose Western ways and worldviews, they would honour Aboriginal culture and way of life as a sign of God’s revelation in the world. Even with a consciousness and intentionality, it is not easy to let go of the old cultural assumptions that govern our thinking and acting, but in the circle there is wisdom to teach us and grace to uphold us when we fall short of the goal.
The IFC community is centred in the weekly Worship and Sharing Circle where sweetgrass and candles sweeten and illuminate the words of the scripture and the sound of the drum. In the circle the gospel of Jesus Christ is expressed through traditional teachings and symbols. People are finding healing and hope where the smudge is lit, the drum is played, prayers are said, and souls offer support to one another. God is working quietly and gently, week by week.
Indigenous (Indian) Family Centre celebrates 40 years of ministry in 2014. We have a number of events planned and we hope they will teach, lead and enable people to continue to develop strong healthy families within our community.
In addition to changing our name by exchanging “Indian” for “Indigenous,” we have a host of dreams for this new phase in our history. Our new website and logo are evolving and remain a work in progress.
We are planning building renovations that will allow us to be more energy efficient and accessible. They will include a new kitchen plan in order to enhance our ability to provide healthy meals and teach our community members how to cook. Once the kitchen is done, catering will help us offset our food and management costs as well as offer people the opportunity to gain employment skills.
Our beading and craft circles are also growing. Many women (and a few men) find their place at the table and talk together while learning ancient techniques and creating beautiful items together. Year round and summer programs for children and youth are introducing cultural skills, providing faith and leadership formation, and most importantly, providing a warm and loving welcome.
Our Creator has been faithful to us at IFC these last 40 years and we eagerly anticipate the next 40. We are grateful for the support and care we receive through the Christian Reformed Church and our many partners throughout the North End of Winnipeg.