Friday’s announcement of $9.9 million in federal funding to spruce up the First Light friendship centre on Quidi Vidi Road in St. John’s brought lots of smiles, hugs and even a few tears as the Indigenous community celebrated another step toward reconciliation.
Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and St. John's East MP Joanne Thompson joined executive director Stacey Howse for the announcement at the former St. Joseph’s church building, and the symbolism was not lost on those attending.
“If you’re into symbolism, it’s heavy and meaningful,” O’Regan told reporters afterward.
O’Regan’s parents were married in the church, which now houses programs and services for a growing urban Indigenous population.
He also remembered moving to Happy Valley-Goose Bay as a child and his father bringing him to the Innu community of Sheshatshiu.
“To see that people lived there so differently than they lived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, to see that gap, left a real mark on me as a kid,” he said.
“It’s a lot of worlds colliding. It’s an emotional day for a lot of people who’ve been working very hard for this.”
O’Regan said government funding for urban Indigenous services is a no-brainer.
“Friendship centres exist in many cities right across the country because our Indigenous population in cities are growing, growing quite largely, and they need a safe space,” he said. “They need an oasis. Life’s busy for all of us, but for many Indigenous people in this province who come to the city, it can be overwhelming.”
Funding comes from the urban component of the federal government’s Indigenous Community Infrastructure Fund, which will amount to $194 million over three years.
One of the main features of the renovations will be the addition of a gymnasium and atrium at the front of the building.
“A majority of the funding will be used for adaptive re-use,” Howse told reporters. “So we are maintaining a lot of the structure of this building, and we are building onto the front to allow for the gymnasium, and there will also be outside garden space, as well as an overall deck on top.”
A highlight of the landscaping will be a residential school memorial garden.
Howse said the friendship centre has come a long way since she moved in St. John’s from Conne River to attend university 16 years ago.
“To be able to put concrete action behind the words of wanting to work towards reconciliation — by making this meaningful investment into our community so that we’re able to support the community in education, health and wellness, child care, all these other necessary supports — that is a meaningful step,” she said.
Howse said the original friendship centre on Water Street will also undergo renovations to provide transition housing.
First Light now owns five properties in the city, including the former Cochrane Street United Church, which it maintains as a performance centre.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram