Today, several of my friends from the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) are visiting Parliament Hill today to talk to MPs about Friendship Centre programming.
In my opinion, Friendship Centres the most important gathering place and point of service for First Nations people living urban centres right across the country.
The North Bay Indian Friendship Centre is central to the urban First Nation community in the city of North Bay. Over the years, I’ve also spent time in the N’swakamok Friendship Centre in Sudbury, Parry Sound Native Friendship Centre, Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Ottawa and the Georgian Bay Native Friendship Centre in Midland.
In the 90s, my partner Deborah ran the largest Friendship Centre in Canada, the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. I’ve also been a guest at the Council Fire Native Friendship Centre also in Toronto.
Today, there are 115 Friendship Centres in communities right across Canada.
The Friendship Centre movement began in the 1950s, when more and more aboriginal people began to live in cities. Each Friendship Centre has its own unique history with their own cast of characters, founding members, programs and many, many stories. By the late 1960s, a growing number of agencies formed provincial and territorial associations. The National Association of Friendship Centres was founded in 1972.
As a boy, I spent a lot of good times at the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre.
My best memories were always the drum socials and mini pow-wows. I was always amazed how many people could jam into that little building on Cassells Street.
Folks like Dan Commanda and Peter Beaucage honed their skills in the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre, teaching pow-wow singing, dancing and regalia-making. They became integral to cultural development in Nipissing in 1980s. If it weren’t for the cultural programming at the Friendship Centre – there would be little to no cultural development and retention in my community.
I have a lot of great memories singing with Kirby Mianskum and his family. For me, the Otterhead Singers was the best drum going. That beat up old drum always sounded good. I had a chance to sing with Chris Couchie, Gilbert Cheechoo, the Late Archie Cheechoo, Jimmy Dick and others. Later on, I had the chance to sing with Kirby’s brother Lester Mianskum and the Medicine Hoop Singers.
At the Friendship Centre, I also had a chance to learn from guys like my uncles Jack Couchie and Larry McLeod, Ruth Couchie, Bill Butler and Barney Batisse – people I would later work alongside as an adult.
I also remember the soup. I remember one time I brought my Mom for lunch one day. I think she was mortified and thought I was taking her for lunch at the soup kitchen. I was a big spender.
But the Friendship Centre was more than just a soup kitchen, craft shop and bingo hall. It was far more than just inadequate office space. (Remember the old house next door, the steep rickety stairs tot eh second floor offices?) The Friendship Centre was a gathering place.
I remember how the drop-in centre was a gathering place. Somewhere, where the Ojibway youth would integrate with the Cree youth and where everyone can feel welcome.
This was our neighbourhood.
I’m sure we made a fortune for the Tim Horton’s owners next door. We continually frustrated Music City as there were a lot more browsers than buyers of their top-of-the-line guitars. We ate as much Chinese food as we did fry bread and soup. And the florists next door wouldn’t miss an opportunity to call the Mesa tow truck company on those who parked on their side of the line.
All these good memories and I didn’t even live in the city! I live on the rez and made special trips into North Bay to hang with the Friendship Centre crowd. I’d spend the night at my brother Andrew’s house and walk into town or take the city bus, the Pinewood route as I recall.
Friendship Centres are the most important service agency for aboriginal people in urban centres. They play a valuable role in finding employment, access to government services, building individual and family capacity, providing health programs, youth programs and cultural programs.
They directly serve the most vulnerable aboriginal people including the homeless, those living on the streets, youth at risk to drugs and gangs, individuals dealing with addictions, single parents and aboriginal women.
But there is still a lot to be done for First Nations people living in urban centres across Canada.
Friendship Centres can do a lot more with increased and more sustainable funding. It’s a fact that Friendship Centres across Canada have not seen a funding increase since 1996.
With sustainable funding, Friendship Centres can continue to provide necessary services for aboriginal people who live in the city. They can continue to be the gathering place that’s so important to a community. They can continue to provide lasting and formative memories for many other people living or just visiting the city.