Since its creation in 1974, the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre has been an innovative force for urban Indigenous issues. This autumn, several new initiatives that have been progressing for years are finally coming to fruition.
Executive director Édith Cloutier was recently featured on popular Quebec television show Tout le monde en parle discussing reconciliation and her emerging partnership with the Montreal Canadiens. The NHL team made huge media waves when they opened their hockey season with a land acknowledgement stating they were on unceded Mohawk territory.
“The partnership began as a friendship around a skating rink,” explained Cloutier. “They’ve been working with the city of Val-d’Or to build an NHL-sized outdoor rink with a roof that will be inaugurated November 15. When they came to work on this project, I began to understand this was their first real contact with an Indigenous community.”
The team’s Bleu Blanc Bouge program, which has already constructed 11 similar rinks throughout Quebec, provides sport infrastructure for underprivileged neighbourhoods. Geneviève Paquette, vice-president of community engagement, invited the Friendship Centre to be partners in the project, which led to discussions about expanding their Indigenous engagement in other ways.
Inspired by a pre-game ceremony by the Winnipeg Jets in last June’s playoff semi-finals, around the time of the residential school discovery in Kamloops, Paquette sought Cloutier’s advice for creating a respectful tribute. Cloutier connected her with the Centre’s chairperson Oscar Kistabish and Mohawk Elder Kenneth Deer and suggested appropriate protocols for advancing a reconciliation action plan.
“The first step was a territorial acknowledgement for the opening of the season,” Cloutier told the Nation. “We’ll be working with the foundation to involve the friendship centres of Quebec in some actions we’re still working on. It’s the beginning of a genuine relationship.”
Another exciting initiative is the development of an Indigenous transitional housing project called Amwatam Miguam, which is Anishinaabe for “the home of calm waters”. Partially based on “wet shelter” projects developing in Vancouver, the 20 studio units will be integrated with frontline services and cultural programing intended to help residents reconnect with the land and traditional knowledge.
“Yes, it’s housing but that won’t work on its own if it’s not combined with cultural connection and programs that support people who have issues with alcohol and drugs,” Cloutier shared. “To provide that safe space where you can be supported in terms of frontline, justice and cultural services. We know our people carry traumas. It’s innovative as a global integrated wellness program – in Cree, we say Miyupimaatisiiun.”
The $6 million project has already been accepted by Quebec’s housing program and if federal funding follows suit, the housing could be ready by March 2023. The city of Val-d’Or has also been a strong partner in addressing this prominent social issue.
“Adding the Indigenous factor to homelessness in Val-d’Or can be a difficult cohabitation,” said Cloutier. “It exacerbates discrimination because it’s such a small downtown that it’s very visible. The Friendship Centre is a grand circle of our community and we can’t leave anyone out of that circle.”
The Centre’s work with marginalized communities also led to $12 million in funding from Quebec in May for its trailblazing Minowé health clinic. Now regarded as a province-wide model for improving urban Indigenous healthcare, the clinic has received adequate funding for four years, which Cloutier hopes to make ongoing.
While this clinic has been connected to the local health and social network over the past 10 years to facilitate Indigenous access to culturally safe services, this relationship has accelerated since the formation of the Viens Commission. Cloutier and other women involved with the Friendship Centre were instrumental in instigating the Commission, which brought systemic racism in the province’s public services to light.
“Interestingly, we were able to get funding in direct link with the Viens Commission,” Cloutier shared. “We presented how an Indigenous health clinic can have a very positive impact in improving the health of our people. That innovative project was translated into two specific calls to action that the government has now been answering.”
After struggling for years to keep it running, the clinic is now positioned to move towards something resembling the expanded services of Ottawa’s Wabano Centre. Along with its five doctors and two nurses, the clinic is developing an Indigenous traditional healing program that will include access to a bush camp purchased seven years ago by a lake outside of town.
“You’ll have access to doctors but also to Elders,” explained Cloutier. “A program that would integrate sweat lodges, walking-out ceremonies and talking circles, combining classic medical services with cultural and traditional services. Healing can happen if we reconnect with the land, even though we’re urban.”
Cree patients travelling to Val-d’Or for medical appointments will soon have more reason to extend their stay. While the Friendship Centre has provided lodging and food services to Crees accessing medical services for over 40 years, it began working with the Cree Health Board in 2017 to expand its capacity and redesign its facilities.
“We’re building a brand-new annex to the centre, modernized with 42 private rooms and washrooms,” Cloutier said. “People can have more privacy and comfort like at a hotel. There will be a space for cooking wild meat on your own, though we’ll still have a modern cafeteria within the Friendship Centre, making it a home away from home.”
The Centre has been working with architects and consultants jointly with the Cree Health Board to create an ambitious five-story extension that responds to patient needs while evolving existing facilities that were built 25 years ago. The nearby clinic will provide easy access for pregnant women and others requiring medical or cultural services.
Despite its many accomplishments, the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre continues to develop innovative solutions that respond to the evolving needs of its urban Indigenous community.
“These four initiatives don’t happen overnight,” shared Cloutier. “Nobody gives us gifts. It’s working hard for our people, connected to our community. That’s why we always know what the needs are. We can’t just sit and say we’re good with what we have. No, it’s evolving every day.”
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation