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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

How Cree Women’s collective Niweshtanan began building houses

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 23, 2020

When Jacqueline Quinn heard about a volunteer building project specifically for women in Montreal a few years ago, she was immediately interested. She had always dreamed of travelling somewhere to lend a helping hand but had never taken that leap. 

Now on maternity leave with her third son, Quinn felt empowered to step out of her comfort zone and follow her passions. She didn’t hesitate when a friend in the city called to say she had four openings in her Habitat for Humanity team. 

“I was snowshoeing across the lake with my sister Kim and started telling her I’m going to renovate a house,” Quinn recalled. “I said, ‘I’m a little scared because I’ve never used power tools but I’m really excited to try this out.’”

The Quinn family is well known for their charity work in Mistissini, from fundraising campaigns for disaster relief to the Wreath of Hope initiative every Christmas at the Meechum grocery store, which is owned by Jacqueline’s parents, Jack and Beverly. 

Quinn still remembers the look of admiration on her eight-year-old’s face when she shared the news. She was pleasantly surprised when her cousins BettyAnne Forward and Christina Jimikin agreed to join the sisters for a day of work in the east end of Montreal, where the women were tasked with plastering, sanding and priming.

“The second year we wanted to have our own name and let people know we were all Cree women,” Forward told the Nation. “We named our group Niweshtanan, meaning ‘we will fix it’, and my brother made the logo on our Facebook page. We were asked a lot of questions about the Cree Nation – I feel very proud.”

Jacqueline Quinn’s other sister Catherine and Christina Jimikin’s sister Sonia joined the team in 2018 to make it a real family affair. As the non-profit organization requires each person to raise at least $500 for supplies, they embarked on an impressive fundraising campaign that included selling poutine and spaghetti plates and creating a hockey pool. 

“My late cousin Robie Nicholls played a huge part cheering us on,” Quinn shared. “He would help with fundraising at the grocery store. I think the organization appreciated us a little more because we were so far up North, giving three days to travel down, build on site and travel back home.”

Thanks to the team’s hard work and the community’s generous support, Niweshtanan jumped to first place among the Women Build teams. This time they got to work with power tools, making new friends and enjoying the satisfaction of helping a low-income family attain an affordable house. The experience was documented on the CBC series Maamuitaau.

Habitat for Humanity is an international organization that has built over half a million houses worldwide since its founding in 1976. In the Women Build program, each team spends a day on a construction site with the necessary safety gear, tools and instructions. The families also contribute 300 to 500 hours of “sweat equity” on the construction of their new home. 

“We’re all women from different parts of Canada that do this – different backgrounds, busy moms,” explained Forward. “Some had never held a hammer before, and it felt cool to do that. The family was so grateful and nice. We were invited to the key ceremony when the family finally moved in, but we were already back at work.” 

Families in the program undergo a comprehensive selection process and can purchase the completed home with a no-money-down, interest-free mortgage. The organization entered a partnership with the Assembly of First Nations in 2011 to help provide housing alternatives and raise awareness about housing needs in Indigenous communities. 

While new responsibilities and Robie Nicholls’ declining heath prevented their return last year, the pandemic upended all this year’s plans. But the women seem eager to get Niweshtanan back together one day. Life seems to have taken on a faster pace lately but the desire to give back hasn’t diminished. 

“I would love to take part in it again,” Quinn declared. “It was a great experience. I’m glad I could experience it with some of my closest girlfriends. Definitely I have an itch to go buy some power tools and make a garden bed around my house.”

With most of the Niweshtanan team employed by the Cree School Board, it may be possible to leverage the experience as an educational opportunity. Quinn gained a greater respect for workers in the construction trades and believes there is potential for helping youth acquire new skills and empathy.

“For me, it’s showing my sons what you put out there in the world does come back to you,” said Quinn. “I could see something with helping the community have more flower beds, helping kids learn about gardening. There could be a summer project or little camp.”

With the Cree Nation’s goals of expanding home ownership and general capacity building, there may be growing opportunities for applying similar initiatives in Eeyou Istchee in the coming years. 

“It’s definitely something we want to look at doing again, maybe even renovating Elders’ homes or cabins through Habitat,” suggested Forward. “They seem interested in coming up North and doing something. Let’s see what we can do with the Chief and Council to find something here.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.