Living in an urban setting is incredibly stressful for me sometimes. It is noisy. It is big. It smells. I am surrounded by people who do not know me, who do not know my family, who are strangers with no connections to myself or my home community. I sometimes feel as though my daughters and I exist in a space apart, alone and unseen.
Mine is not an isolated experience. Anyone who has moved from a tight-knit rural community, into a city, has a lot to adjust to. People who immigrate here from other countries also experience dislocation and alienation.
However, as of 2006, 54% of aboriginal peoples lived in an urban centre, which was a 50% increase in only 10 years. We have a much younger population than the non-native population, with our median age being 27, compared to 40 among non-aboriginal peoples. Half of our total population is comprised of children and youth. We are the fastest growing population in Canada with a growth rate six times higher than the non-native population.
The challenges we face as native peoples in urban settings are unique to us, and our particular needs are growing at an incredible rate because of the increased pace of urbanisation and the native ‘population explosion’ (watch out, we might fall out of the air at any time!). It would be more than foolish to ignore this trend or to liken it to the experience of any other group in Canada.
What an urban community means to me
When I first came to Montreal, it was First People’s House at McGill that kept me from succumbing to the alienation. As soon as class was done, I would head over to the FPH and study, or chat, or whatever. More importantly, I was able to relax.
Having a community is not something that I merely desire. Without it, I cannot function. My culture is incredibly important to me, but I am not even talking about cultural events here…I’m talking about being around other native people. It is so very simple. I can literally feel my body relaxing. We joke, we drink tea, we talk, we let the kids play, we read, we study, we sit, we are. It doesn’t matter where we come from, whether we are Dene, Cree, Mohawk, Inuk, Métis and so on. Being around people who face similar challenges, and who value similar things, is important. No, scratch that. For me, it is absolutely essential to my well-being.
I feel this same sense of belonging and comfort when I go to the Native Friendship Centre here in Montreal. So when I heard last week that the Inter-tribal Youth Centre is closing its doors on March 31st, and that the Friendship Centre itself was slated to be closed within three months, I felt like something vital was being taken away from us. Something that many of us do not merely want, but absolutely need.
The Native Friendship Centres
The first Native Friendship Centre opened in 1951 in Toronto. Then called the North American Indian Club, the centre was opened to deliver services to native peoples who had moved into the city to seek better economic opportunities. Friendship centres back then were mostly volunteer-run, providing cultural and social programming to community members. The focus was, and in many ways continues to be, on aiding people with the difficult transition from an isolated rural lifestyle to a radically different urban one.
As the number of aboriginal peoples moving into city centres increased, so did the demand for services and community contact. In 1972, the National Association of Friendship Centres was formed.
As of 2011-2012, Friendship Centres across Canada delivered 1,439 programs to over 2.3 million participants on a status blind basis – that is, equally to status and non-status First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal people. Furthermore, the entire Friendship Centre Movement consisting of 119 Friendship Centres will deliver $123,990,823 million in programs and services to Canada’s rapidly increasing urban Aboriginal population.
Montreal may lose its Native Friendship Centre
This National Association does not oversee the actual individual Friendship Centres, which are run by provincial or territorial organisations. In Quebec, that provincial group is the RCAAQ, Le Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Quebec.
In October of 2011, the RCAAQ revoked the provincial membership of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal (NFCM), stating that the NFCM unilaterally rejected the Final Special Bilateral Agreement. I have been unable to find that Agreement to see what possible issues there are within it, and I have been unable to get in touch with anyone at the RCAAQ.
In any case, the NFCM has basically been running on fumes since then, and in three months will have to close its doors.
I don’t care what the issues are, the NFCM needs to stay open
I don’t know the fully story here. I don’t know who did what. What I do know is that a number of people have been working damn hard, for many years, to keep the NFCM alive and as a result the community has benefited.
I know that I access the NFCM 5-7 times a year with my kids. I know that there are people who use it a heck of a lot more. I know that the Intertribal Youth Centre had some absolutely kick-ass programming, and I know that every time I set foot in the Friendship Centre, I feel at home.
I know that when I was thousands of kilometres away from my family and community this Christmas, the NFCM made me and my daughters feel welcome.
This is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to fade away unnoticed. Nor should responsibility for funding be downloaded onto the community it is trying to serve. The Friendship Centre system provides an incredible opportunity to address a myriad of issues faced by aboriginal peoples in urban settings.
I will attend the community feast this Wednesday, and in the meantime, I am going to try to find out what can be done to support the NFCM and ensure that it keeps providing urban native peoples with the support and community that keeps so many of us going.
For those of you living in other cities, I hope that you will support your local Friendship Centre. Perhaps you weren’t even aware they exist, or aren’t really sure what kinds of programs they offer. It is well worth your time to find out.
At a Special Assembly on March 21st, it was decided that there would be a Day of Action Planning and Mobilisation on April 5th from 6-9pm at the Native Friendship Centre (2001 St Laurent, with Ontario).
There is also a community feast tonight (March 28th) from 6-9pm. A petition is currently circulating with the following:
This petition is for the support of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, the Centre’s core funding has been suspended indefinitely. This would likely force the closure of the Friendship Centre within three months.
This petition will be sent to the following organizations The National Association of Friendship Centers, Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec.
Your signature would assist with giving a strong voice to the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal.
We the undersigned support the full reinstatement of core funding under the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program (AFCP)
If you want to help, please write some letters
Petitions are great, but letters personalise an issue and have the potential to make a big impact. If you wish to write letters in support of the Inter-tribal Youth Centre and the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, here is some contact information:
Le Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec
225, Chef-Max-Gros-Louis, bureau 250
Téléphone : 418-842-6354
Ligne sans frais (toll free) : 1-877-842-635
Josee Goulet – Executive director of the RCAAQ email@example.com
Edith Cloutier – President of the RCAAQ
National Association of Friendship Centres
275 MacLaren Street
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Toll Free: (877) 563-4844
Jeff Syr is the President of the NAFC.
The whole Friendship Centre Movement is funding by the department of Canadian Heritage.
15 Eddy Street
Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0M5
Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore.
James Moore MP
2603 St. John’s Street
Port Moody, BC, V3H 2B5
Ottawa Office of Canadian Heritage
James Moore MP
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON, K1A 0A5