British Columbia

Indigenous friendship centres are vital community hubs. COVID-19 has forced them to adapt

The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre has been serving its community for more than 60 years.

Indigenous friendship centres serve as social hubs — a role that has been hampered by the pandemic.

Ron Rice said the Victoria Native Friendship Centre has worked to find creative ways to stay connected with community. (Submitted by Ron Rice)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Aboriginal friendship centres to adapt at a time when they're more important than ever. 

The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre has been helping Indigenous people make the transition to urban areas in the Lower Mainland for more than 60 years. 

It operates a 100-bed shelter, a 60-unit transition house and food delivery service for local elders, according to program administrator Kaila Wong. It provides support for elders, children and families, and those who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless.

She said the demand for services has drastically increased in the last 20 months of the pandemic, to the point where they've had to hire more staff to keep up.

"All in all, we've had about 15 new employees come on since COVID and that's to meet the service delivery and the demands of what we do on a daily basis," Wong said. "A lot of it is COVID support. A lot of it is food security and trying to mitigate people who are struggling with ongoing finances and anxiety behind COVID."

She said although the organization has been able to continually provide services to people in need since the start of the pandemic, the centre remains closed to public gatherings.

"We would have family nights, Métis nights ... and I think being closed, our community is really craving and yearning that connection to their culture," Wong said.

The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre remains closed to public gatherings. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

She said since the closure of the centre they've had to modified their events and set up zoom meetings and other digital workshops.

"We've turned some things into virtual connections ... like our outreach to our children and families and registration for food programs," Wong said.

About 50 elders are continuing to be supported daily through its Meals on Wheels program — where volunteers and staff hand deliver hot meals, she said. 

Finding ways to stay connected

As in Vancouver, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre has worked hard to maintain essential services. 

When grocery store shelves were empty at the start of the pandemic, the centre arranged to send food hampers to elders.

They also found creative ways to stay connected: they helped elders start a phone tree to check in on each other.

Prior to the pandemic, volunteers from Ursa Creative, a local Indigenous-owned company, worked with elders to help them better understand technology — helping ease the transition from in-person communication to services like Zoom.

"It [Ursa Creative] has been able to make sure that we have a finger on the pulse of what's happening and make sure that elders are protected and safe," said Ron Rice, a member of Cowichan Tribes and executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.

The Zoom calls have had the benefit of offering staff a glimpse into the lives of elders.

"There were some instances where because we were on Zoom, we could see people coming in to visit, lots of people," he said.

"And so it did create situations where we could provide advice to the elders to say, 'You know, there's too many people visiting in your living room right now. Do all those people live there?'"

Rice said online meetings have been critical, but can't compete with face-to-face interactions that can help communities cope with the losses they've experienced during the pandemic. 

Rice says they have been able to offer elders advice on living situations thanks to Zoom meetings. (Submitted by Ron Rice)

"When something happens in our lives, if it's joyous you share it with the community and the joy is exponentially increased," he said. "But if there's tragedy, then you share it with the community and the burden is lightened." 

"For a community where gathering together is one of our greatest assets, this has been the biggest obstacle in our lives, not being able to come together when it's time to grieve." 

With files from The Early Edition