How fitting that “Wabano” means “new beginnings” in Ojibwe during a time when the public is venturing back out into the world, knowing the pandemic is waning and life is returning to normal.
There was a sense of renewal in the air as friends and supporters of the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health gathered at its annual Igniting the Spirit Gala on Thursday to celebrate and gross $250,000 for the award-winning Indigenous health and cultural centre located in Vanier. Each year, it sees 15,000 people of all ages come through its doors.
Veteran CBC broadcast journalist Shelagh Rogers, who has been hosting the special event at the Ottawa Conference and Event Centre since 2013, told the audience how thrilled she was to return after its three-year absence.
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“I have missed this gala,” she said fondly, speaking to a sold-out crowd of 500 on the traditional, unceded territories of the Algonquin nation.
Her brother, John Rogers, senior account executive for Bell Media/CTV, was also a big part of the night as the live auctioneer, selling off everything from a handmade birch canoe, traditional carvings and artwork to an Indigenous culinary experience at Wabano for eight. There was also a silent auction featuring nearly 200 items, from moccasins and mitts to jewelry and art, and a raffle for a first-class trip for four to Halifax on VIA Rail.
Wabano’s revered executive director, Allison Fisher, opened the evening with a prayer song with Carlie Chase, who used to work at Wabano for many years in director roles (Shelagh Rogers affectionately dubbed them WOW: Women of Wabano).
Chase continues to serve on the gala committee despite having moved back to her home province of British Columbia, where she runs her own consulting company. She, too, was excited about the return of the Igniting the Spirit Gala and its Making the Water Sing theme.
Suspended from the ceiling was a magnificent 20-foot whale crafted out of recycled plastic bottles by artist Marie-Claude Charland. The work of art was named “Birtha” instead of “Bertha” because, explained Chase, “It’s like we’re birthing something new. I know COVID is not over, but we’re ready to emerge, we’re ready to come out from where we’ve been, and this event is all about that.”
A four-part cultural performance, a highlight of the night for many, was met with loud cheers and applause. Artists Christine Friday and Maggie Shew beautifully translated Fisher’s vision into dance, using traditional and contemporary movements to escort the audience to the depths of the Great Lakes to meet the underwater creatures below.
There was also a special performance by Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Mikhail Laxton, who originally hails from Australia.
Wabano has many loyal supporters, including Barbara Farber, president of Leikin Group and long-time co-chair of the gala committee. She shares the community leadership role with Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Soloway, who sat the event out after learning his wife had just tested positive for COVID.
Farber’s involvement with Wabano dates back years, beginning with a promise she made to former deputy police chief Sue O’Sullivan to check the place out. She dropped into the building, located on Montreal Road, thinking she would pay a short visit. She stayed for the entire afternoon.
“I called my office after an hour and said ‘I won’t be back today’ because I was so enthralled,” Farber recalled of how impressed she was of the programs that Wabano runs to encourage healthy children, families and communities.
“It’s an amazing organization, and Allison deserves all the credit in the world.”
Among the guests seated at Farber’s table were Israeli Ambassador Ronen Hoffman and his partner, Michal Arad, and CYDEF executive chairman Paul Hindo and his wife, Alison McClure.
Attendees also included Indigenous Canadian playwright Thomson Highway, who was recently honoured with a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, Treasury Board president and Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier and Odawa Native Friendship Centre executive director Randy Mayes. Spotted from the gala committee were Hydro Ottawa general counsel Shaun Logue and Suzanne Valiquet, a member of the Ottawa Police Services Board and president and founder of Momentum Planning and Communications. Hard to miss was criminal defence lawyer Ewan Lyttle in his sealskin shoes by Inuk fashion designer Nicole Camphaug, owner of ENB Artisan. Lyttle has been doing pro bono work for Wabano for almost 12 years.
Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin Anishinaabe from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Nation, was absent, but she received a special mention that night. She will become the first Indigenous chancellor of the University of Ottawa this November.
The evening took a moment to remember the late Shirley Greenberg, a visionary, activist, lawyer and philanthropist who passed away one month ago at age 90. Wabano had previously honoured Greenberg with the name Mino-de’elkwe, which means “good-hearted woman”. A number of her friends were in attendance that evening.
“She donated to Indigenous causes when few others were giving,” said Rogers. “She shared the joy of Indigenous culture and pride.”
Rogers once got into a live auction bidding war with Greenberg at an Igniting the Spirit Gala over a painting by Christi Belcourt “knowing that I could just keep her going up and up, until she stopped and hung me out to dry at $6,250,” said Rogers, who couldn’t afford the painting that she’d just won.
“I went to Shirley and said, ‘Let’s make a deal. You were up to $6,000 and you were going to pay. I will pay the $250 and you can have it, but you can let me come over and look at it’. And that’s how it worked out.”
There was a loud round of cheers and applause for Greenberg as Rogers asked everyone to show their love and appreciation to “make sure she hears us.”