Victoria Fred remembers dancing in the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre’s basement as a young child.
Now an adult, she and fellow members of the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers, the Yukon’s premier traditional dance troupe, preformed for the celebration of the centre’s 50th anniversary on Tuesday evening.
As a young woman, Fred rose to the top of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre’s board. She then took over the Ingamo Hall centre in Inuvik, as well as the friendship centres’ board for the N.W.T. She eventually represented that territory on the National Association of Friendship Centres before returning to the Yukon to sit on the Skookum Jim board once again.
Throughout that time, inspiration and motivation from the friendship centre movement encouraged Fred to go back to school, upgrade and then complete 10 years of university and law school, she said.
Fred was called to the B.C. bar in 2000, and the Yukon bar in 2002.
Back “in those days” of the early ‘70s, when many of the members of what is now the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers were first learning traditional songs in the Skookum Jim basement, no one was performing traditional dance.
First Nations’ cultural activities, like dancing, singing and ceremonial rites, had previously been outlawed. Because of the effects of residential schools, even if there were groups bold enough to perform publicly, few knew the steps or words.
But Doris McLean, former chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and mother and grandmother of some of the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers, started the Skookum Jim traditional dance group as a part of the friendship centre’s programing.
McLean still dances with the Dakhka Khwaan Dancers.
Despite practising aboriginal law in both B.C. and the Yukon and dancing in one the territory’s most popular dance troupes, Fred still has time to support the friendship centre movement.
“When aboriginal people move from the communities to urban environments, friendship centres create an environment to help them develop skills and to be marketable out in the community and to become aware of their surroundings without compromising their identity,” said Fred. “They’ve been such an instrument for assisting aboriginal people to get a step up.”
While a major focus of those early days was employment aid, friendship centres have become beacons of cultural and familial support in concrete jungles all across Canada. The national association’s logo is a teepee pitched in between two skyscrapers.
Most centres now offer everything from daycare and after-school programming to job training and cultural activities. And they have always been a place for young aboriginal people to become involved in the local and national politics that affect them, said Fred.
Andrea Landry, the youth executive for the National Association of Friendship Centres, is a perfect example.
Hailing from Pays Plat First Nation in northern Ontario, Landry had a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper just over a month ago.
It wasn’t the first time she’d met with him, either. He remembered her, she said with a chuckle outside the Skookum Jim celebration at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre Tuesday night.
A year ago, Landry led a book and documentary project of friendship centre success stories. It was given to every Canadian MP and the prime minister to help illustrate the importance of investing in friendship centres.
Harper said he agreed with Landry, but at 23, the young aboriginal leader is already filled with realistic skepticism and even cynicism when it comes to politics.
“A lot of time the Conservative government does seem supportive, face-to-face, but then it’s kind of hard to see the actions,” she said. “A lot of time it’s hard to see them walk the talk.”
At her last meeting with Harper, Landry spoke specifically about the federally-funded Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program offered through friendship centres across the country. She told him how it feeds directly into jobs in the economy. She hoped to play to his government’s focus, she said.
But on April 1, when the friendship centre portfolio was transferred from Heritage Canada to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, money for that specific program was “frozen.” None of the friendship centres, nor the national association or youth council were notified. They found out in June, when they couldn’t pay their bills. At the national youth council’s meeting in Whitehorse this week, they learned Ottawa has since decided to “thaw” that funding, but have provided no details about new terms and conditions programming must meet to get funded.
“They haven’t shown us anything,” said Landry. “They haven’t been open.”
Neither Landry nor Fred can figure out why.
Both women argue that while friendship centres have become accustomed to “running on pennies,” every penny invested gives a maximum return for the greater Canadian society.
For Landry, friendship centres mean family, she said. While the focus is on aboriginal culture, the doors are always open to everyone and no one is turned away. Many times, it’s as simple as having a warm meal or playing a game of drop-in basketball in a comforting, welcoming environment, instead of a stuffy, sterile government office, she said.
“And look at how successful that is,” she added, motioning to the gathering inside the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, which included such notable friendship centre alumni as Jordin Tootoo. Tootoo is the first Inuit NHL hockey player and grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
“When you see the number of successes and young people having confidence in their ability, I think that’s such a major contribution to our future,” said Fred. “Why would you even consider not supporting that?”
The Skookum Jim Friendship Centre opened in 1962 with money left from the late James Mason. On his death bed, Mason – better known as Skookum Jim, or the man responsible for the Klondike Gold Rush – put his fortune in a trust with terms that the interest generated was to be used to “help obtain a better standard of health and education for Indian people in the Yukon.” The trust fund is still in existence today and the interest generated is now used to provide awards and recognition to aboriginal people who have helped their community.
The 41st Annual General Assembly for the National Association of Friendship Centres was held in Whitehorse this week to help commemorate the Skookum Jim Centre’s anniversary.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at