Two years after working together on a project to deepen relationships with Indigenous people by renovating a former residential school, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Disaster Service’s (MDS) Ontario Unit are collaborating again.
On March 1, the two organizations began renovating and upgrading the office building that houses MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program in Timmins, located about seven hours north of Toronto on the traditional territory of the Mattagami First Nation.
MCC, which was recently able to purchase the over 100-year-old building, is paying for the materials and providing the construction supervisor; MDS is supplying the volunteers to assist with some of the work, as much as COVID-19 restrictions allow and by the availability of volunteers.
The work involves demolishing existing walls, building new office spaces, re-doing the front entrance, assisting with updating the wiring, insulation, and finish carpentry and flooring.
“We had hoped to start in January, but COVID-19 pushed things back,” said Nick Hamm, MDS Ontario Unit chair.
Fortunately, he said, there are two groups in the same zone as Timmins, which has a low number of COVID-19 cases, who are available to help. These volunteers are coming from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite community and the Matheson Old Order Mennonites.
“This isn’t what we planned for, but it’s all in God’s hands and timing,” Hamm said of the late start and travel restrictions.
Volunteers at the project will follow all COVID-19 safety and health protocols such as masking, social distancing, limiting the number of workers in the building, signing in and contact tracing and a posted safety plan.
“We want to keep the volunteers and everyone else safe,” he said.
Of the project itself, Hamm said MDS had a very positive experience with MCC's Indigenous Neighbours program in the summer of 2019. That’s when the two organizations partnered with the Six Nations Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., for its Save the Evidence Campaign at the Mohawk Institute Residential School.
Renovating the office in Timmins is another way for MDS to “further Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action so MCC can carry out its important work of healing and peacebuilding with our Indigenous communities,” he said.
MCC Ontario’s Indigenous Neighbours Program Coordinator Lyndsay Mollins Koene, said, “It is incredibly rewarding to work with MDS again.”
By buying and then renovating the building, MCC is “telling people MCC is staying, we are committed to partnerships with First Nations and Indigenous community in the North and throughout the province, and that relationships matter to MCC”, she said.
In addition to providing office space, the building is used to facilitate learning tours of churches and other groups to the north.
It will also provide a hub for the Niska Artisans program, the fair-trade program that seeks to both educate patrons about the unique cultures in Ontario’s far north and to preserve a way of life. “Customers can visit and purchase unique handmade art and local artisans will have space to create and sell their work,” said Mollins Koene.
Added John Head, MCC Ontario executive director: “As with all MCC projects, it takes a community to come together and make a difference. Without MDS’s support, this project would not be a reality. We are very grateful.”
The estimated cost of the renovation materials and other specialized contract work is over $100,000. People who would like to donate to MCC for the project can do so here or by mailing a cheque to MCC, 203-50 Kent Avenue, Kitchener, ON N2G 3R1. (Note Timmins renovation project).