On April 26, a fire at the Gibson Block—one of Edmonton’s most iconic buildings—displaced 66 homeless women. Over its 103-year life, it was a boarding house for German immigrants, a bathhouse and numerous private businesses, but in recent years it housed the Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC)—a 24/7, 365 days a year operation. That is, until the fire.
The sprinkler system did the most harm. “It nearly made this big ’ol boat float away,” says WEAC director Tanya Tellier. Water damaged half of the building. “Ceilings were falling down from the third floor all the way into the basement.”
Now with the Gibson in the repair stages, the program, which hopes to re-open its doors in the fall, sees the crisis as opportunity. “We’ll increase access to our elders and our community, as well as events that are going on, and we want to partner with other organizations in the community for this to be an official place for Aboriginal ceremonies.” says Tellier. WEAC also wants to make its programming more accessible for women to come in, volunteer, or participate in groups, rec activities, clinic care or sharing meals, even if they aren’t staying in the residence. Upon opening, expect to see local art in the building’s window display, too. “Overall, what we are striving for, is to be good neighbours.”
There’s even more good news for the Gibson: in July, city hall gave its owner, E4C, permission to use the ground floor for just about any commercial, retail or food business. We may finally see this truly unique building reach its potential.