Sunshine House is self-described as “a community drop-in centre focusing on harm reduction and social inclusion,” which works “to provide programming that fulfills people’s social, community, and recreational needs.” Currently Sunshine House offers several indispensable community programs, including its twice-weekly afternoon drop-in program which provides “space for community members to come in for a cup of coffee, a meal, conversation and fun activities,” “Like That,” which is a program that provides a space where people exploring gender and/or sexual identity can gather at Sunshine House for fun, skills building and recreation” and it’s weekly Brunch program.
Recently, Sunshine House has also launched Manitoba’s first ever formal overdose prevention site. The introduction of the Mobile Street Van/Mobile Overdose Prevention Site (MOPS) is momentous in advancing harm reduction work in the province and serving community health.
Stewart’s involvement in the founding of Sunshine House grew out of her earlier work as a nurse in The Pas, Manitoba, Treaty 1 territory. Stewart had gone to The Pas in the 80s to work at the community college to develop an RN nursing program which would cater to the needs of Indigenous students and which would incorporate Indigenous cultural practices. This work was met with significant resistance from non-Indigenous residents of The Pas. However, a variation of this initial vision was eventually obtained when the Swampy Cree Tribal Council based on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) was able to secure federal funding for the nursing program’s development. Stewart worked with the council to establish a bachelor’s nursing program (rather than an RN diploma program), which included skills needed to work in a remote community, and some “tribal-level services that were kind of specialties, like an Environmental Health Officer.”
While working in The Pas, Stewart met with a “new cultural experience, a respect for faith and Creator” amongst the Indigenous Christian community there. This profoundly affected her.During her time at The Pas, the HIV health crisis was becoming more apparent. Stewart remembers young, gay individuals talking with her about their experiences, and instances of suicide attempts amongst gender and sexually diverse populations.
Passionate about community health, Stewart eventually transitioned to working at The Village Clinic in Winnipeg, a community health center which worked with many clients with HIV. At Village Clinic, Stewart met colleagues and friends who would eventually go on to establish Sunshine House Winnipeg. Amongst these friends would be John Schellenberg who was Outreach and Education Coordinator at Village Clinic, Carrie McCormack who was to become the Executive Director of Kali Shiva, and Margaret Ormond, Sunshine House’s eventual long-term Executive Director.
Stewart was involved in HIV prevention work while at the Clinic. “We were renting a house over on Good St., near Broadway, and doing prevention work.” This outreach work was particularly geared towards sex workers, many of whom were members of racial minorities. “They needed hospitality. They need a warm spot. They needed a socializing spot.” In turn, Stewart remembers “young volunteers that went out on the street doing prevention. They had backpacks. They had snacks. They had condoms. They had needles. They had all this stuff for harm reduction.” The house was eventually termed the “Living Room,” and they were able to secure federal research money for their work by being part of a large cross-Canada study, headed by the University of Toronto, on “men who had sex with men.”
Eventually, the Village Clinic discontinued the Living Room, but Stewart says, “I couldn’t get out of prevention work.” Later Stewart joined Osmond and other former Village staff in doing prevention work apart from Village Clinic. Several independent organizations gathered at what was to be the community health centre, Nine Circles, including Kali Shiva AIDS Society, the AIDS Shelter Coalition, and the Manitoba Aboriginal AIDS Task Force.
Former members of the Village Clinic were searching for a house to continue the work they had begun with the Living Room. During this time Stewart was serving on vestry at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, and she learned of an unoccupied house owned by the parish. In early 1999, after agreeing with St. Matthews to rent the house at the cost of expenses, outreach work was begun again.
Stewart says the house hadn’t been established very long when “we had a community meeting with the participants” to determine a name for the building.
“There had been someone—Dion Sunshine. She was a trans woman who pushed for this kind of house. Sunshine actually made it to the house. She came for a Saturday night out of Saint Boniface. I think Margaret went and picked her up. Dion died a couple of days later, just after seeing it for the first time.”
Quite a bit later, in 2006, Sunshine House would receive full federal funding to buy the building where it is currently located, at Logan and Sherbrook.
Stewart recalls memories of her time with Sunshine House. She noted how the organization was unique for its model of solidarity, and how this distinguished it from various charity models. “Our number one choice was always to hire participants for our staff.” Much of Sunshine House’s current embodiment has developed from the work of participants. “We did not appreciate barriers between us and the people we were trying to enable a service to,” she says. “We really just wanted solidarity.”
Stewart remembers Sunshine House’s commitment to informal opportunities for learning, and various modules which were developed to equip Sunshine House participants with various skills. There was a car repair module, a bike repair module, an art module, and sessions of Indigenous drum building. She remembers too Program Coordinator JD Ormand developing JD and the Sunshine Band, which is still performing.
During the beginning of Levi Foy’s (Sunshine House’s current Executive Director) time with the House, Sunshine House began outreach to immigrants and refugees. Sunshine House was reaching out to community members living in the Manitoba Housing building on the corner of Logan, inviting people for brunch, and providing a social place for them. “We had picnics in the community, a dance over in the freight house. We wanted to be a resource in the community… It’s kind of natural that we got involved with refugees,” Stewart says. But she notes that she didn’t realize how extensive this work was until she heard an immigration lawyer on CBC “make reference to Sunshine House and how they had helped about 70 people who had crossed the border.” She comments on the development of the “Like That” program in recent years, and speaks about how for Sunshine House, “the whole thing is to be yourself.” This connects for Stewart with what she has valued and loved about Sunshine House.
“At one annual meeting just a few years ago. We were having everyone that wanted to say what Sunshine has meant to them. I said it meant to me just a major community in my life, because it doesn’t matter what your background is, everyone matters equally here. We reach out to one another as friends. To me, this is just one of the biggest joys of being involved in Sunshine House is seeing people feel like they can be themselves.”
Margaret Ormond was a dear friend of Stewart’s. When she died last year, a four-day vigil fire was held for her on Sunshine House’s grounds. Stewart says that during this time these values were resonating with her, because “it’s something that Margaret would feel comfortable with… Implementing these values meant a lot to her. “
The vigil fire “was a chance for everybody to come at any time and sit there.” During this time Stewart reflected on Osmond’s life, and the history of Sunshine House. “It’s one of those places that has worked at reconciliation for a couple of decades…. I received the blessings of those relationships. It’s helped me all through the years.”
“It’s community… this is what Sunshine House has meant to me. It has been a very important community. These people I went through some hell with. We were together all these years.”
I ask Stewart about how she understands her faith alongside her experiences with Sunshine House, and if she might comment on what it might mean to inhabit “good news.”
“You know one word that comes to mind is something I want for society. More of a leveling. It’s where the mountains are brought low and the valleys high. It’s an Advent thing. It’s images from the Magnificat.”
She says, in reference to Sunshine House, “That’s the joy of being part of a place like that. That joy gives you hope.”