St. John's Native Friendship Centre looking for a new home

Executive director Christopher Sheppard is working to find a bigger home for the St. John's Native Friendship Centre, with room for social enterprises to cover operating costs.

Executive director says new location should be in prominent place

Christopher Sheppard is the executive director of the St. John's Native Friendship Centre. Just 32 years old, he's also the president of the National Association of Friendship Centres. (CBC )

Christopher Sheppard wants the St. John's Native Friendship Centre to have a prominent place in the city. 

That's just one of the reasons the executive director is looking to establish a new centre soon. 

"When you think of St. John's, you don't really see a huge visible property or really any area of the city that shows the Indigenous reality of this province. And for our capital city that's really quite shocking," said Sheppard. 

At 32, he's a leader to watch.

On the federal scene, he's the president of the National Association of Friendship Centres. 

Locally, he has ambitious plans for the centre in St. John's.

The St. John's Native Friendship Centre building is on the west end of Water Street. Sheppard would like a new location in a prominent spot, with a bigger building and larger grounds. (CBC )

Sheppard first started working there as a volunteer 10 years ago. He remembers that one of his first duties was to peel vegetables for National Aboriginal Day. 

Centre offers many programs

Today he oversees close to 50 employees at the St. John's Native Friendship Centre, located on the west end of Water Street. 

The lively building includes a 20-bed shelter for those travelling into St. John's from other parts of the province for medical treatment. The beds are also offered to homeless people, and the Shawnadithit shelter is almost always full to capacity. 

The centre offers many other programs and services, including drumming circles, cultural diversity training, fitness classes, and Four Fires Kitchen, a catering company that is also a social enterprise. 

Cook Vick Allen prepares elk meatballs for a client's evening event. The St. John's Native Friendship Centre runs the catering company as a social enterprise. (CBC )

The Turtle Island Childcare Centre operates out of a separate location on Elizabeth Avenue. Children learn about hunting traditions, as well as traditional singing and drumming songs. Some children participate in smudging ceremonies. At the moment the child-care centre has a waiting list of 30. 

"It's really been my passion to create space for Indigenous people who live in cities," said Sheppard. 

And space, says Sheppard, is what the centre needs more of.

A bigger building, he says, would allow room for a large gathering space and a gym. A sweat lodge is also important —  the existing property isn't big enough to accommodate one. 

Sheppard's goal is for the new centre to be financially self-sustaining, with operating costs covered by income from social enterprises.

Ate polar bear meat growing up 

Across Newfoundland and Labrador, seven per cent of the total population identifies as being Aboriginal, according to Statistics Canada. That's 35,800 people. 

In the 2016 census, 6,690 people in the metropolitan St. John's area identified as being Aboriginal.

"I always say it's a romanticized version of Indigenous people that we're in the north only," said Sheppard.

He himself did grow up in the north, far from the boldly coloured houses of St. John's.

Sheppard is from Postville on the coast of Labrador, where the population is less than 200.

Sheppard says his Inuit culture was all around him growing up.

He ate polar bear meat in school as part of nutrition class. Students also learned how to build qumatiks, the boxed sleds that snowmobiles pull.

Sheppard says he can still sew today because students made traditional clothing in school.

A young Christopher Sheppard in the arms of his grandfather, respected Inuit elder George Sheppard. The photo dates to around 1986 in Postville, Labrador. (Submitted)

And then there was his grandfather, respected elder George Sheppard, who was both a trapper and a fisher. At the age of 83, he snowshoed 56 kilometres to raise money for the Janeway Children's Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John's.

Christopher Sheppard remembers how his grandfather would soak wood in the bathtub in order to make snowshoes. 

"When your grandfather shows up on his 12-horsepower snowmobile on the weekends to drag you and your siblings and cousins to the cabin at the head of the bay," said Sheppard, "it was really just a part of being Inuit in Labrador."

By contrast, Sheppard says maintaining cultural connections requires more work in urban areas.

Friendship centres can help with reconciliation 

The 118 friendship centres across Canada provide programs and services for Indigenous people who live in urban areas.

The services of the centre in St. John's are designed for the Indigenous community but are also available to non-Indigenous people.

Sheppard says he's passionate about relationship-building between the two groups. 

"When we talk about reconciliation in this country and reconciliation in this province, we are not going to get anywhere near reconciliation unless those relationships are honest and genuine and true," said Sheppard.

The way he sees it, the St. John's Native Friendship Centre is a logical place for change to start.

Children drum at the Turtle Island Childcare Centre in St. John's. It's one of the programs that the St. John's Native Friendship Centre offers. (Bruce Tilley/CBC )

No site has been chosen yet for a new location. He says he'd welcome a donation of land, and he hopes federal infrastructure money will cover the cost of construction, which could run between $2.5 million and $5 million. 

He'll also entertain renovating an existing property.

The plan is to get feasibility work and preliminary drawings done within the next four months, and Sheppard is counting on work to begin either in 2019 or 2020.