The head of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres on the group’s 50th anniversary
Sylvia Maracle, head of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, on the organization’s 50th
IIn the late 1960s, small groups of Indigenous women in Ontario hosted social gatherings in their homes, church basements and wherever else they could find space to reconnect and strengthen cultural bonds after moving, or being displaced, from their small rural communities to larger cities and towns. What started then as informal get-togethers of friends has since grown into 28 non-profit friendship centres under the leadership of one governing body — the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres. Sylvia Maracle, the federation’s executive director, who is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, has dedicated more than 40 years to improving the quality of life for Indigenous Peoples living in urban environments throughout Ontario. Now, as the federation celebrates its 50th anniversary, Maracle reflects on the successes of the federation’s past and looks to its future.
On Indigenous presence in urban areas
In Canada, 65 per cent of Indigenous Peoples do not live in their home territories or northern rural communities — they live in towns and cities. In Ontario, it’s 85 per cent. There’s a very prominent conversation going on in Canada about reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit. We need to extend this dialogue to discuss where Indigenous Peoples live because there is a notion in the media and in education that we all live in remote communities or on reserves and that’s simply not true. Indigenous Peoples are not an unseen, unnamed group somewhere — we live right where you live.
On the federation’s new Urban Indigenous Action Plan
The intent of the plan was to help Indigenous and non-indigenous people learn how to talk to each other and create relationships. For example, Indigenous kids drop out of school because district school boards don’t know how to relate to them. These school boards don’t know how to ask for help, they don’t know how to change and they don’t know how to invite the Indigenous community to the discussion. The goal is to start a dialogue; Indigenous Peoples want to be part of it. Let’s talk about the systemic barriers that exist for us. We need to create opportunities to work with each other because we will both benefit from changing the current situation.
On implementing the plan
The federation has worked with district school boards and service boards in municipalities to create a strategic model for childcare in about 18 centres. We continue to have a few specific areas — health, justice, violence-related issues — where the action
plan is used provincially. I recently had conversations in Ottawa with a couple of federal government ministers and they talked about implementing the plan nationally. The federation has done a lot of research and produced many reports and programming options, but you never know when you have the right idea at the right time. If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to be patient.
On determining centre needs
There is a set of priorities that is common to many of the centres in Ontario, but there are some communities that have unique needs. For example, the centre in Geraldton is doing a lot of work in early childhood education and family care. At the centre in Thunder Bay, there is an enormous push to help with Indigenous homelessness. There are a number of centres involved in a program called Urban Indigenous Homeward Bound, where the federation houses single-parent families that need help overcoming issues such as addiction and poverty.
On the future of the federation
When the federation was founded, there were six friendship centres — today there are 28 and very shortly we will open our 29th. We have discussions about developing new centres in Brantford, Kingston and a few smaller communities. The whole notion of urban friendship centres is growing, but they have to engage with the community in other ways. In order to do that, many centres need more physical space to accommodate multiple activities at the same time. All friendship centres need to talk and figure out how to help the broadest base of the Indigenous community without everyone chasing the same money. Looking back on 50 years of the federation, things can change. They certainly have changed for the better.
Read an extended version of this interview at cangeo.ca/mj19/maracle.
Sylvia Maracle wants to help correct the common misconception that all Indigenous Peoples only live in remote communities or on reserves.
Maracle, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, at the federation’s headquarters in Toronto.