The North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre exists to improve the quality of life for First Nation, Metis, and Inuit people living in North Bay, providing a wide range of programs to accomplish this goal.
Many of these programs focus on the family, with pre-natal, post-natal, and the healthy babies’ program, explained Kathy Fortin, the centre’s executive director.
Also pertaining to the family are “cooking classes, budgeting, parenting classes, anything that has to do with the day-to-day life of being a mom or a dad.”
There are also business supports available, access to legal programs, and assistance offered to secure employment and housing.
Fortin has been with the centre for over 20 years and has seen firsthand how these programs help people get back on track, and realizes it is “important to focus on some of the success stories from the Friendship Centre,” to remind people of the services available to help.
One such success is Ashley Cleverdon. When Ashley came to town, she was looking for new housing, expecting her first child, and seeking opportunities to better her life.
She was “in a dark place,” at that time, and was searching for some light, which came from the Ojibway Women’s Lodge, and from here, led to the Friendship Centre.
The Ojibway Women’s Lodge in North Bay emphasizes “healing in a supportive community,” and they welcomed Cleverdon, housed her, and provided support.
“They believed in my dreams from day one,” she said, “and pushed me to go back to school,” which she did, “quickly” finishing her high school at the age of 24, before enrolling in Modern College of Hairstyling and Esthetics.
She stayed at the Lodge for about three weeks, and “it really took me out of a depressing state,” providing more confidence that the future was brightening, more so than when she arrived in town, when hope seemed distant on the horizon.
As her state improved, Cleverdon continued working through some of the programs offered by the Lodge and the Friendship Centre, which helped prepare her for the challenges of raising a child.
“I’ve remained friends with a lot of women in the program,” she said, and is still in contact with much of the staff and support workers. “They’re like family, honestly.”
“I’ve been in a lot of programs” offered by the Friendship Centre, “and they’ve really helped,” she said.
“It’s good to recognize how much good they do for people. I don’t think people realize that there’s all this support out there.”
After graduating Modern College, Cleverdon found work in salons, but decided to make the leap to opening her own business, Lavish Lounge, a salon of her of very own, which she accomplished with help from a grant provided by the Friendship Centre.
This was two years ago, and her business survived the pandemic closures. Upon re-opening the salon is doing better then ever.
“It’s going great,” she enthused, noting she has been able to hire staff, whereas “before it was just me” running operations.
With her situation so improved, Cleverdon now volunteers frequently with the Friendship Centre.
“I try to give back to the community the way they have done for me.”
Of particular importance for Cleverdon was learning more about her Indigenous culture, which is a cornerstone of the Friendship Centre’s teachings.
“A lot of the young people who come in here do not have that connection to their culture,” Fortin explained, “and that’s one of the main focuses of the Friendship Centre, ensuring they know where they come from.”
“Once you know where you come from, you’re a little more grounded,” she added.
“They introduced me to my culture that I was unaware of,” Cleverdon said, and “those teachings brought me back to a positive place in my life.”
“I’ll be able to carry those teachings onto my children now.”
Cleverdon’s salon is across the street from the Friendship Centre, and she still pops in from time to time to visit and help when she can.
“I can look out the front window right now, and I can see her business,” Fortin said. “It’s nice to see.”
David Briggs, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca