SURREY — Councilllor Vera Lefranc said she can’t believe how far the city has come “in three short years” since convening the Surrey Urban Indigenous Leadership Committee (SUILC).
Chaired by LeFranc, the committee aims to help one of the city’s most vulnerable — and sizeable — demographics.
“One of our most vulnerable populations is often Indigenous people,” said LeFranc, who was instrumental in the committee’s creation after being elected in 2014. “We find that with violence against women and girls, our homeless population, and in particular, for me, I’m really passionate about helping young people aging out of foster care. Sixty per cent of those children are Indigenous.”
The 2016 Census counted 13,460 Indigenous people living in Surrey, which is about 2.6 per cent of the population.
The SUILC — which has secured operational funding to the tune of $500,000 for five years from Indigenous Service Canada — aims to be a “collective voice of the urban Indigenous population in Surrey” and “the protagonist driving the change we want to see.”
“Wherever I look, I see we need to do much better,” said LeFranc. “For me, that means being really thoughtful and developing a strategy.”
Last year, Surrey council approved the All Our Relations strategy that aims to “build and strengthen relationships at all levels of the community and to improve the economic participation, educational attainment and health outcomes for the Aboriginal population in Surrey.”
“One of the basic fundamental beliefs I have is that any change has to be Indigenous-led,” said LeFranc.
“It can’t be top down. This is a project of the leadership committee itself,” she said of the strategy, noting the committee is made up of about 20 groups including Indigenous-led organizations such as Kekinow Native Housing Society, Metis Nation of B.C. and Cwenengitel Aboriginal Society, as well as agencies with Indigenous departments including the school district, First Nations and Fraser health authorities, and the Ministry of Child and Family Development.
Three years into the committee’s existence, LeFranc said she is now seeing its work come to fruition, adding she’s proud of how far things have progressed in a matter of years.
LeFranc said it was “powerful” to see SUILC be consulted on the city’s recently updated 10-year plan for parks and recreation.
“Some of the things they asked for when the consultant and staff came back and showed us the plan, they were able to see how closely the Indigenous leadership committee was listened to. There were tears in the room,” she told the Now-Leader.
“To see things like a canoe shed in the plan, cultural spaces, celebration spaces, increased access for low-income Indigenous people to our parks and recreation, as well as public art.”
It’s no accident that a plethora of Indigenous artwork is being commissioned.
Most recently, the city approved a $180,000 illuminated sculpture as part of the Museum of Surrey’s expansion project.
The sculpture’s working title is “The Rivers that Connect Us,” and includes four paddles that are 16 feet tall. Those paddles will encircle a 12-foot medallion base, in a design inspired by a Coast Salish spindle whorl.
The standing paddles symbolize a traditional, respectful and welcoming gesture, and “they are intended to recognize, welcome and honour the diversity and inclusiveness of newcomers to the City of Surrey and the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples.”
Eight other works of Indigenous art were recently commissioned in Surrey.
Leslie Wells’ ‘Eight Salmon Heads’ is among the three of the eight that are to be installed at Surrey Arts Centre.
The others are featured, or will be, at Surrey Nature Centre, Guildford Library, new arenas in North Surrey and Cloverdale, on street poles and on concrete barrier walls of a bridge near Bear Creek.
With the collection, the city aims to “create opportunities for visual representations of reconciliation, and to celebrate and support the creative and cultural practices of artists on whose nations Surrey is sited.”
And just last week, LeFranc said she also attended a public art opening for Indigenous artist Brandon Gabriel in Guildford.
As LeFranc explains, “We’re indigenizing public spaces and making sure that Indigenous art is well respected.”
“And also respect for the land within we live — Semiahmoo, Katzie and Kwantlen — so having them lead us, for example, some of the public art pieces and the advice we receive. The new piece at Surrey’s museum is an example of that,” she added.
The SUILC is also partnering with Surrey Libraries to plan an Indigenous film series for this fall or winter.
Meantime, SUILC secured a $250,000 grant from Vancouver Foundation to launch a social innovation lab focused on Indigenous child poverty in Surrey.
This funding is “critically important,” said LeFranc, because while 45 per cent of Surrey’s Indigenous families own their own home, 45 per cent of Indigenous children in the city grow up in poverty.
“That’s the highest number of any community off-reserve in Canada,” LeFranc noted.
“So we’ve just begun that process,” she said of the lab. “This is really, really exciting because one of the things we do know is people like to jump to solutions: If we just did this, or that, we would address Indigenous child poverty. But what we’ve learned is that’s not necessarily the case. It’s a really complex problem.
“It’s going to be Indigenous led and guided, and will come up with solutions or prototypes,” she elaborated. “It could be anything from a program to a facility to culturally safe spaces. Culturally safe spaces are really important to the Indigenous community…. We think that might be one of the prototypes but we need to hear that from the community.”
The process began with an “Introduction to Social Innovation Labs” workshop with Cheryl Rose, of the McConnell Foundation, in March.
Then in April, an SUILC delegation visited the Winnipeg Boldness Project, another social innovation lab focused on children in Winnipeg’s north end neighbourhood.
While there, LeFranc said an Indigenous doula program they launched caught her eye.
“Most child apprehensions (in Winnipeg) happened within the hospital. Babies were born and almost immediately apprehended,” LeFranc explained.
“So what they did is they developed an Indigenous doula program, someone who is trained to walk beside a woman who is pregnant through the process and work with her. This dramatically increased the child apprehensions.”
LeFranc noted Surrey’s Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre already has a doula program, so perhaps it could be expanded.
“We need to look at, do we have that issue here also? It’s really getting a sense of what’s what. Sixty per cent of our children in care are Indigenous.”
SUILC also recommends the city support land acquisition for an urban Indigenous hub.
“Currently, SUILC is exploring options to develop a physical space for the Indigenous community that could function as a community gathering space while provide a range of social services (including housing) all under one roof,” a report to city council notes.
“The new refugee service/housing complex (Welcome House) owned and operated by the Immigrant Services Society of BC in Vancouver is a model that we would like to replicate for urban Indigenous people in Surrey. Urban Indigenous organizations in Surrey have the mix of services and funding contracts that could sustain an Indigenous hub but the missing link is the land,” it adds.
A city-commissioned study in 2016 found that while Surrey’s Aboriginal population is larger than Vancouver’s, the city had just four service groups, versus 28 in Vancouver.
The “First Peoples 2018 Vital Signs” report, released by SurreyCares Community Foundation last February also highlighted the need for “culturally sensitive” services in the city. It found Surrey’s Aboriginal population is growing, young and underserved.
LeFranc said she’s proud that cultural celebrations in the city have also grown since the establishment of SUILC three years ago.
Surrey saw its first National Indigenous People’s Day Celebration in 2016, organized by city staff, FRAFCA and the local First Nations.
In 2017, dancing, singing and tee pee storytelling were just a few of the activities at the Bridgeview Community Centre on June 21, a datechosen as National Aboriginal Day because it coincides with the summer solstice.
This year, the celebration was moved to City Centre’s Holland Park, after outgrowing its former venue in Bridgeview.
“There were just too many people,” noted LeFranc. “This year, I came off the stage and the Metis community was doing some of the celebrations and a woman approached me and said she was so proud to raise her Metis sons in Surrey and to see this celebration of culture. We were both crying by the end of it. She just said how important those celebrations are.”
LeFranc also pointed to the significance of the historic servicing agreements signed by the Semiahmoo First Nation and the City of Surrey in July. The move means SFN could have potable water as early as next year, something it hasn’t had in more than 10 years.
“It’s huge – it’s monumental,” SFN Chief Harley Chappell told Black Press Media. “Our late uncle, Grand Chief Bernard Charles, started the process of negotiating a connection with the City of Surrey in the mid-1970s, so it’s taken us almost 40 years to get to this point. It’s historic for us.”
Learn more about SUILC, and its initiatives, at surrey.ca/indigenous.
With files from Black Press Media