Shelagh Rogers was spot-on when she said Wabano’s Igniting the Spirit Gala was like a family reunion. “Family that you choose,” the veteran CBC broadcaster quickly added in a voice so familiar it felt like a warm smile.
She was back for her 10th year to host the signature fundraising gala for Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health on Thursday night at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre. She encouraged the crowd to build on National Indigenous Peoples Day. “Let’s continue the celebration,” she enthused.
Wabano’s gala is an event that people return to year after year. Tickets got snapped up so quickly that there was a waiting list. As well, organizers had more sponsors wanting to support the cause than ever before.
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“What an extraordinary evening,” long-time executive director Allison Fisher said at the podium as she welcomed a crowd of 610 attendees. By that point, they’d already been dazzled by a cultural performance and deeply touched by a special video on Wabano and its history.
At its heart, the Wabano Gala is about the sharing of stories, with Fisher being the “creative visionary” behind the event, said Rogers. “She is first and foremost a storyteller; a brilliant and beautiful storyteller.”
Wabano, which provides culturally relevant health services and programs to Ottawa’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations, is 25 years old. Attendees heard how the idea behind it was started by a group of woman around a kitchen table, imagining that such a place could exist for the community. Its first location was in a renovated former music shop. They called it Wabano, which means ‘new beginnings’ in Ojibwe.
In 2013, Wabano welcomed the public to its new space on Montreal Road, designed by Indigenous architect Douglas Cardinal and his son Bret. It was made of stone to hold its stories and of curved glass to resemble water. More than 15,000 people are part of the growing Wabano community, the audience heard.
In the video, the viewer is left with these words: “We are no longer invisible. We are no longer unheard and, in many ways, we are just getting started.”
The cultural performance saw well over a dozen dancers take to the circular stage erected in the middle of the large room, beneath some 50 giant spherical balls suspended from the ceiling. The artists delivered a breath-taking display of traditional and contemporary dance.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Helen MacMillan, who found the four-act performance to be “emotional” and “powerful”. She was one of many who quickly rose to their feet to deliver an enthusiastic standing ovation after the dancers were done. “I loved it.”
MacMillan is the general manager of the event’s platinum sponsor, Rideau Carleton Casino, Future Hard Rock. She also stepped up this year to join Barbara Farber, president of Leikin Group, as her co-chair.
When the Seminole Tribe of Florida acquired Hard Rock International in 2007, it made a commitment to support local Indigenous communities.
Out supporting the cause were Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier and Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs. So were former senator Marie-Paule Charette-Poulin, Algonquin College president Claude Brulé and Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group CEO Mark Goudie and vice president Janice Barresi, and Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health. Joining the Borden Ladner Gervais LLP table was Ron Ignace, Canada’s first commissioner of Indigenous languages. Attendees also included Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council. She thanked Fisher and her team at Wabano for the “exceptional service” that they provide.
Spotted from the Wabano board of directors were Melissa Hammell from First Peoples Group, Shaun Logue from Hydro Ottawa, and technology mentor, advisor and angel investor Jennifer Francis.
The Ottawa River Singers performed the prayer song. There was also an online auction of a large array of artwork and handcrafted goods by First Nation, Inuit and Métis artists and craftspeople. Rogers’ brother, John Rogers, was back to lead the live auction. As well, there was a raffle prize for a first-class Via Rail trip for four to Quebec City with a two-night stay at the Château Frontenac.
Later, Fisher took to the stage to speak about the evening’s theme, Our Stories Come from the Stones, inspired by the Canadian Shield — the world’s largest continental shield. Because rocks are so old and have many stories to tell, Elders refer to the Earth’s rocks as “grandfathers”.
On each table was a smooth stone included in the centrepiece. They were collected by Fisher this past spring from the shores of Manitoulin Island for the Wabano’s gala. She spoke of her hope that people will feel a connection, when they touch and hold the stones, and be reminded of the stories of Our Mother Earth “and know that the land always loved you back”.