British Columbia

Indigenous healing centre at Vancouver's CRAB Park step closer to reality

The idea for an Indigenous healing centre in the Downtown Eastside has been floated for more than a decade, but now a step has been taken toward making it actually happen.

Advocates hopeful after park board motion in favour of centre

Chris Livingstone has been advocating for an Indigenous-led healing centre since 2002. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The idea for an Indigenous healing centre in the Downtown Eastside has been floated for more than a decade, but is now a step closer to reality after the Vancouver Park Board passed a motion in favour last week.

It authorizes the park board to request the Vancouver port authority work with Vancouver First Nation groups to explore the feasibility of a new healing centre or cultural centre as well as other community projects in the park.

It also calls on the park board to explore the initiation of a working group to help make the centre a reality.

In 2018, the City of Vancouver passed recommendations approving consultations with the community, health sector and government partners to plan such a centre.

The park board said the healing centre would preferably be located near CRAB Park, the area's only beach-side park.  

"We're hopeful that we can get city council and senior levels of government to fund it and to start to move ahead," said park board commissioner John Irwin, who brought forward the motion. 

Tracy Draper and Chris Livingstone are pictured at Crab Park in Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, May 30, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

For the project to happen, it would need funding and support from various levels of government as well as support from the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which owns the land CRAB Park is on. 

Port to provide more details this summer

In a statement, the port didn't commit directly to the healing centre, but said it is committed to giving back to the community as part of a larger port expansion.

Details on what that will look will be revealed this summer, the port said, including "meaningful inclusion of Indigenous rights holders." 

The park board motion doesn't provide details about what the centre might look like, but a grassroots group of about 30 people is meeting weekly in Vancouver to brainstorm specifics.

Chris Livingstone, who works with the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, is part of the group and has been advocating for such a centre since 2002.

An artist rendering from a city report published in 2012 shows what a healing centre longhouse on the Crab Park beach in Vancouver might look like. The group today is using it as inspiration. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He and many others in the group see the centre as a place for Indigenous-led healing, including sharing circles, smudges, harm reduction and an alcohol maintenance program.

We often feel that the voices of the Downtown Eastside are ignored.- Chris Livingstone, WAHRS

He said his vision is for this centre, unlike many programs currently offered on the Downtown Eastside, to be operated entirely by Indigenous peers rather than top-down. 

"It's important, because we often feel that the voices of the Downtown Eastside are ignored," Livingstone said. 

A healing centre for DTES Indigenous residents

Irwin said a centre that addresses some of the physical and mental health challenges of the Downtown Eastside would be a step toward reconciliation. 

"What I heard from quite a number of Indigenous people and community people who came to the meeting is that they would feel much more at home, if they could get in touch with their culture, if there was a healing and recovery centre specifically designed and geared for them," Irwin said. 

Former resident Tracey Draper, who struggled with alcohol and drug addictions in the past, is in favour of a space similar to what Livingstone described. 

Tracy Draper grew up estranged from her Cree heritage. She said reconnecting with traditional culture was crucial to her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As a child, Draper was taken away from her family from the Peepeekisis Cree Nation in Saskatchewan during the Sixties Scoop.

She was raised in a European family and her search for her Indigenous identity brought her to the Downtown Eastside. 

"That is where I found many of my people and other nations of people congregating and looking for healing and wellness like I was," she said. 

There is a lot of stigma.- Tracey Draper, former DTES resident

She said it's important the space is low-barrier and access is allowed at any stage of recovery.  

"There is a lot of stigma where, 'Oh you cannot be high or drunk or this or that,'" Draper said. 

Draper says access to tradition was crucial in her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Just a few months ago, she had the chance to make her first Indigenous drum. 

The area where advocates are calling for an Indigenous healing centre to be built is currently a concrete parking lot. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It was the most wonderful experience I've ever had in my whole life," she said. "Bringing culture back is our people's way to getting our hearts and our spirits back."

About the Author

Micki Cowan

Reporter/producer

Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.