Volunteers Jun. 23, 2020

Building with the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation

Please note that all Habitat Global Village builds have been suspended for 2020. For more information and updates, please visit and bookmark our Global Village page.

Last September, I had a wonderful opportunity to co-lead my third Habitat Canada Global Village team to a First Nations Community on Traditional Territory. This time to the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation (Neyaashiinigmiing) located on the east shore of the Saugeen Peninsula (Bruce) on Georgian Bay where Habitat for Humanity Grey Bruce is partnering with the community to build nineteen single-family detached houses.

My journey to learn and experience some of the history and culture of Indigenous people in Canada started in 2016 on a week-long Reconciliation trip to Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), a remote First Nations Community 500 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. Having led and participated on Global Village teams to Kenya, Lesotho, Fiji, El Salvador, Nepal and the Philippines, I began to draw parallels between the living conditions I witnessed in developing countries to those in Indigenous communities in Canada.

An opportunity to use building a home as a classroom

From these experiences, I realized that Habitat has a unique opportunity to both support Indigenous families and communities in Canada and to use building a home as a “classroom” to teach non-Indigenous Canadians about Indigenous history, culture, and traditions while engaging with and developing stronger ties with Indigenous communities. Through the Indigenous Housing Partnership, hundreds of families have access to decent and affordable homes while also providing hundreds of Indigenous youth and with the skills and training necessary to help them maintain and build new homes in their communities.

Always one to look for opportunities to make a positive difference, when I came back from KI I started co-leading Global Village teams to First Nations Communities in Canada with fellow team leader Rhonda Gomes. First to Tobique First Nation in 2017 and then Curve Lake First Nation in August 2018. Both of these opportunities allowed our teams of non-Indigenous volunteers to spend time with community members listening and learning about their history and culture, experiencing traditional drumming and dance ceremonies and seeing and understanding the housing and infrastructure needs of the community.

Empowering Indigenous youth

Our experience in Neyaashiinigmiing last September was extra special as our team included two Indigenous youth, Arden McGregor and Carey Whitford, who were recipients of the Rutherford Family Foundation Indigenous Leadership Awards presented through George Brown College in 2019. The basis for these awards arose from the many benefits I have witnessed from empowering youth through providing access to education, job training, mentoring and financial support.

This program provided the students with a unique opportunity to interact with non-Indigenous volunteers and to apply their learnings and construction skills while building relationships and sharing some of their stories and culture. At the end of the build Arden and Carey both commented that it was a life-changing experience and that they appreciated “working side by side with a group of passionate and dedicated volunteers who showed how much they wanted to learn from and support First Nations people and their communities”.

Pictured from left to right: Carey, Ken Rutherford and Arden during last year's build.

We were honored to have Chief Greg Nadjiwon and other members of the Band Council join us in rich and thoughtful discussions at various times throughout the week. This combined with many opportunities to engage with the homeowner families and other members of the community while experiencing traditional teachings, ceremonies and food left us all feeling full of gratitude. And I can’t forget to mention how much we appreciate Greg, John and Al, our gracious hosts from Habitat Grey Bruce.

A temporary hold but a bright future

For National Indigenous Peoples Day this year, we were planning on leading a team of six Indigenous students and six non-Indigenous volunteers back to Neyaashiinigmiing to launch a new youth initiative for National Indigenous Peoples Day to build on the successes of the Indigenous Housing Partnership and the growth of the Indigenous Leadership Awards program. While the recent pandemic has put these plans on hold, this is only temporary. It is through these programs I believe we will help build strength, stability and independence that will not only improve the livelihoods of the youth and the wellbeing of their families, but will also strengthen the economic development and self-sustainability of their communities.

I know that the future will be bright as Habitat’s Indigenous Housing Partnership will continue to build hope along with family and community stability through affordable homeownership while stimulating positive reflection and discussion about social justice and reconciliation to the benefit of all Canadians.

- Ken Rutherford