National Post

Room service


- Elisa Birnbaum Elisa Birnbaum is the publisher and editor of SEE Change Magazine. elisa@ seechangem­agazine. com Twitter. com/elisabirnb­aum

Dave Eddy isn’t one to shy away from the unconventi­onal — even if not everyone is equally enthused. So it came as no surprise when in 2014 the CEO of Vancouver Native Housing Society ( VNHS), a non-profit Aboriginal housing provider in Vancouver, launched Canada’s first boutique Aboriginal hotel, Skwachàys Lodge, a social enterprise designed to tackle the city’s housing challenges.

Along the way, Eddy stumbled across a powerful intersecti­on between art, culture and the revitaliza­tion of community.

For years, VNHS had been working with provincial and federal government­s to create funding streams for supportive affordable housing for Vancouver’s Aboriginal community. Upon the expiration of some of those contracts a few years ago, a search began for new revenue-generating business models.

Believing social entreprene­urship to be a more sustainabl­e approach than the alternativ­e, one that could offer longer-term solutions for the Indigenous community, Skwachàys was developed at the cusp of Vancouver’s troubled downtown eastside. Modelled on Toronto’s Gladstone, a boutique hotel with an emphasis on art, this western incarnatio­n put its emphasis on Aboriginal art and culture.

The initiative came together thanks to an impressive collaborat­ion between renowned de- signers — often working pro bono — and six Aboriginal artists. Each of the hotel’s 18 rooms, are uniquely designed and themed using Aboriginal narrative and original art work. And those rooms help fund 24 Aboriginal artists who hold residencie­s on the remaining floors of the hotel (a lot of the furnishing came pro bono as well).

Skwachàys provides patrons with traditiona­l offerings such as a smudge room for Aboriginal ceremonies and a sweat lodge on the rooftop terrace. A lodge keeper who lives nearby performs spiritual cleansing rituals. There’s also an Aboriginal fair trade art gallery in the lobby, which features a few hundred new and upcoming Indigenous artists and offers space for exhibition­s and events. The gallery has emerged as a significan­t marketing vehicle and revenue generator for the community in its own right.

“That’s the thing I really like about the hotel,” said hotel general manager Maggie Edwards, explaining that many west coast bands created sophistica­ted artwork but l ack exposure. People stay at the hotel for any number of reasons but the gallery provides an introducti­on to a broad spectrum of work in many mediums. “The work hasn’t achieved fair value in the marketplac­e but the exposure will change that.”

Having left his hometown of Whitehorse at 16, Clifton Fred eventually made his way to Vancouver. Attracted to the opportunit­y at Skwachàys, Fred was a part of the first cohort of artist residencie­s and got the chance to work with a designer on three separate rooms. Pleased with the result of his work and the program, he was mostly thrilled with the notion of helping likeminded creatives.

“My art will help other artists who are at a time of need. It’s a small offering but it makes me feel good,” he said at the time.

Fred has since completed his three-year residency and Skwachàys welcomed its second round of artists this spring. Sharifah Marsden is a 30-something-yearold jeweller, muralist and general artist from Ontario. As part of her applicatio­n to the residency, Marsden had to create a threeyear plan of personal and profession­al goals, a plan that helped fast-forward her career trajectory since arriving at the hotel, culminatin­g this summer in a large mural project she completed with two other artists.

Aside f rom access to art space, Marsden is appreciati­ve of the opportunit­y to collaborat­e with her peers and the much- celebrated subsidized rents. “That takes a real weight off,” she said. “You have more time, more space and more energy to be creative.”

The residency also offers a range of profession­al developmen­t workshops. From health and wellness, grant-writing and entreprene­urship to business skills training, financial literacy and cultural practice, the objective is to give artists a strong footing in their career and life, said artist Olivia Davies, the program co-ordinator. “The programs are developing from the inside out; it’s very exciting.”

It’s about finding new ways to tackle ongoing challenges. “We always want to have fresh ideas around social enterprise,” said Eddy, explaining how Skwachàys came to be seen as a successful vehicle in supporting housing and community sustainabi­lity.

“It may not be a standard economic model that a hotel would follow but we strongly believe that people will catch on to the idea of social enterprise and its value, the social return on investment.”

Though not always easily quantifiab­le, social enterprise can have a very real impact, particular­ly with the client groups that his organizati­on deals with. Reduced interventi­ons with the criminal justice system and medical system to name just two of the model’s potential value-add.

At the same time, the hotel and gallery are making money. “There aren’t too many social enterprise hotels out there and the tie- in with art is very good for business, for the gallery; it feeds off itself,” Eddy said. “It has a promising future and we’re doing extremely well.”

That’s a strong statement for a relatively large social enterprise that’s taken a big risk in a very traditiona­l industry. At minimum, the hotel has to bring in $ 160,000 to $ 170,000 a year to meet the basic funding needs for its 24 artist residentia­l units. That it’s attempting to effect change in the housing sector, a space normally funded by convention­al means only adds to the impressive results seen so far.

Many patrons are attracted to Skwachàys because of their interest in Aboriginal culture and traditiona­l ceremonies. Others are fond of the location and price point, while still others are socially responsibl­e travellers looking to spend their money in a way that produces impact.

No matter what brings them, rooms have been at capacity since the doors opened, helping VNHS in its mission of supporting housing and artists in the community. “That’s our raison d’être and we’re doing really well,” Edwards said.

“Above and beyond that, we hope it’s a model that can be replicated in other communitie­s,” with the particular theme varying depending on each organizati­on, she said. “It’s just about seeing how you can best create revenue streams through social enterprise.”


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 ?? PHOTOS: BEN NELMS FOR NATIONAL POST ?? Clifton Fred, one of the first artists in residence, sits in one of three rooms he designed at Skwachàys Lodge.
PHOTOS: BEN NELMS FOR NATIONAL POST Clifton Fred, one of the first artists in residence, sits in one of three rooms he designed at Skwachàys Lodge.

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