Written by Farha Akhtar
On any given day, prior to the pandemic, the doors of the Women of the Dawn Counselling Centre in Regina’s North Central district would be open to the community. Local residents, young and old, regardless of their background, would be welcomed into the facility and provided a meal free of charge. In addition to running an onsite meal program, the centre operated the Pemisu Program, which translates as “Come and Eat” in Cree. The program provided free lunches for children aged 5 to 18 in and around Regina. Serving 100 children a day, the organization – which has been operating for the last 25 years – has literally fed thousands of children in Regina and surrounding area.
But when the pandemic hit the centre faced unprecedented challenges.
“The pandemic was horrible for us,” says Ivy Kennedy, Director of Women of the Dawn.
“I noticed more people taking advantage of the free food and yes, it is because of COVID and of course poverty has been a priority in our area.”
Social distancing has also hindered the centre’s ability to run its meal programs according to Ms. Kennedy.
“It’s hard to have people stand in a social distance when they are hungry. Having 300 people at once was very challenging. We tried our best.”
The demand for the Women of the Dawn’s meal service and “Come and Eat” program tells a much larger story of the ways the pandemic is having
a disproportionate impact on Canada’s low-income and Indigenous Peoples. Research shows that low-wage earners are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. And, according to recent data released by Statistics Canada this past summer, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people experience pre-existing vulnerabilities including higher prevalence of poverty, food insecurity and a lower ability to cover unexpected expenses. These factors combined make coping with the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, that much harder.
This is no surprise for Ivy Kennedy who says rates of poverty in the North Central part of Regina where her centre operates are very high. She also points out the rates of poverty among Indigenous Communities in the province is startling.
“If you read the numbers on the First Nations in Saskatchewan it is over sixty percent and more,” she adds, First Nation Children are feeling the compounding effects of the pandemic in very real and direct ways.
Tackling Food Insecurity and Creating Opportunities for Growth
For Ivy Kennedy and her colleagues at Women of the Dawn, the “Come and Eat” Program does much more than provide nutritional lunches on a daily basis to school children during the school year and summer months. Children in the program are also taught about nutrition, and they also learn about safety around trains and railway crossings if they live or go to school near a rail line.
Running alongside the “Come and Eat” Program are the Centre’s women-centred programs. These include counseling services, job skills training, educational opportunities and workshops. On average 8,400 women participate in these programs a year. Ivy Kennedy says it is just one more way the centre helps address the root causes of childhood poverty.
“Training these women, most of whom are mothers, is one of the only ways we think we can get our children out of poverty,” she says.
A Community-based Approach
As an organization which upholds its vision to create strong, healthy and self-reliant Indigenous communities through its programming, Women of the Dawn is showing the powerful impact community-based programs can have.
The community of North Central Regina prides itself for being a neighborhood where honoring traditional lands and celebrating diverse cultures go hand in hand. According to the City of Regina Community Action Plan, 2017 volunteerism, community engagement and partnership were cited as just some of the reasons why residents love living in and feel supported in this neighborhood.
That same spirit of cooperation and partnership is what will allow the Women of the Dawn to continue with its valuable programs according to Ivy Kennedy, pandemic or not. She says the organization is always looking for new partners to join them in tackling hunger.
“It’s difficult to see people hungry, but with partners we can help the community.”
K+S Potash Canada has been honoured to partner with Women of the Dawn so they can continue to have open doors to support local residents, young and old, regardless of their background with their meal program.