O:se Kenhionkata:tie, also known as Land Back Camp, officially opened the doors to its permanent location, the Willow River Centre, on Oct. 7. The inaugural open house was run by co-directors Bangishimo Johnston and Amy Smoke.
Visitors took a full tour of the location alongside refreshments and were able to connect with each other around the sacred fire hosted in the garden.
“I’m seeing people from the community. I’m seeing people I’ve never seen before. I’m seeing people who don’t normally come out. It’s just really cool to just continually have that little door opening and closing or hearing the dang of the doorbell,” Alli Mai, a Land Back Camp facilitator said.
The Willow River Centre is located at 243 King Street East. It will offer drop-in hours, a community garden, live music, markets and community events. The three-story center is complete with two kitchens and a courtyard. They are taking in donations of furniture such as microwaves, couches, office chairs and more from the community at large.
“Right now, to have a space opening, it gives me hope that we’re still fighting and we’re still here. And we’re fighting against people who are on the wrong side of history,” Mai said.
Their journey with Land Back Camp and the Willow River Centre has taken many forms. They have helped run social media and have answered emails from community members. Moving forward, Mai will facilitate drop-in hours at the center.
Organizers of O:se Kenionkata:tie announced the new gathering space on September 5. However, plans for having a permanent space have gone back to when the group first started in 2020.
“We just wanted a space that was safe. And especially a sacred space for Indigenous queer people, those who didn’t see themselves in other spaces right now,” Mai said.
Mai camped in a tent with Land Back Camp in Willow River Park. Mai was assigned to be a night watch in 2020, when the camp started. The Willow River Center is a collectively run space, like how the Land Back camp was run.They recall that the dream was always to have a permanent space lead by Indigiqueer and Two-Spirit people.
“My job is to keep the fire. I want to keep it strong so that the fire can continue for our ceremony. I have one task and it’s amazing,”’ Anne Marie, a Two-Spirit Afro-Indigenous member of the community said.
Attendees of the open house were greeted by the smell of a well-tended fire and the sounds of community members bonding. For those of us who have missed the sense of belonging since COVID started, the Willow River Center provides a safe space to be yourself.
“It’s the very nature of Land Back Camp, for our youth in particular, it is a place to combat a lot of the hate that is focused on Indigenous communities,” Marie said.
The main spaces’ walls are adorned with photographs from Bangishimo Johnston and art works from local Indigenous artists. Walking into the Center feels like homing home to a warm hug after a long day outside.
“This is our resistance against that and reclaiming the ways we’ve communicated. It’s about creating a space where we do belong,” Marie said.
Some much-needed items include a couch, sofa chairs, office desks and chairs, shelves and a microwave. To find a more comprehensive list and more information on donating to the center, contact the group through the O:se Kenhionkata:tie’s Facebook page.