The head of the On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of Indige­nous Friendship Centres on the group’s 50th an­niver­sary

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW BY KILEY BELL

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 can­­a­cle.

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.

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