By Michael MacDonald
Full Circle was dedicated to providing a place for professional or pre-professional aboriginal artists to learn and perform. Many aboriginal people just get together and dance. In my community in Cape Breton dancing together was a great opportunity to spend time together and celebrate our community. In my community a lot of older people would talk about how these forms of Ceilidh dances were outlawed in Scotland. The people that escaped to Cape Breton from Scotland started doing the dances together again. This happened with Scottish people all over Canada. Unfortunately, dances were outlawed in Canada as well. The aboriginal population’s dances were outlawed here. Over time the dances were made legal again and were organized. By this time many aboriginal people had moved to cities. In the city the traditional dances took place in community centres. These community centres are called Aboriginal Friendship Centres and are located all over the country. This is the story of one centre in Vancouver, but you should find out if there is a centre in your city or town.
The Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society and others like it started to open across Canada in the mid-1950s. Since then, approximately 120 Friendship Centres provide support for the rapidly growing urban aboriginal population in Canada. Nearly 80% of the total aboriginal population now lives off-reserve; however, approximately 90% of government funding for programs is directed to reserves through the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The Aboriginal Friendship Centres were opened to provide a place to go with questions and to get help and advice. “People started to move into the city, but their suitcases didn’t hold everything that is necessary for a healthy city life. They didn’t have the skills that they needed to get work in the city,” said Damon Johnston, Executive Director of the VAFCS. He also says that the Centre is the first place for people to stop when they get to Vancouver. “It is a safe place, a place of refuge.”
All the Friendship Centres across Canada are connected to a national organization called the National Association of Friendship Centres, whose main office is located in Ottawa. Provincial bodies such as the British Columbia Association of Friendship Centres are also part of the organizational structure. The Centres are creating more unity, creating one voice so that we can identify and address the needs of the urban aboriginal population. They are playing a major role in bringing clarity to that voice.
Caroline Buckshot, a VAFCS employee, and Damon Johnston both agree with the statement “Our future is tied to our culture.” Cultural integrity is a cornerstone of human development. Its importance is demonstrated by the fact that the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society has implemented Family Night and West Coast Night on a weekly basis throughout the year. This has been the case for so long that nobody seemed to remember when it started! Tuesday night is Family Night and was started as an open house for the Metis community of Vancouver to celebrate their heritage. Since then it has become a Powwow Night that regularly has 100 dancers and singers in the big gym. Wednesday night is West Coast Night. Each week is hosted by one of the West Coast First Nations.
Many different types of aboriginal singers and dancers demonstrate their pride and unique approaches to song and dance. Upwards of 250 people attend and standing room only is a common occurrence. The singers are at one end of the gym standing around one microphone with one or two hand drums. The dancers move counter-clockwise around the centre circle of the basketball court, which represents the fire. Oftentimes, the dancers are all women and the drummers all men. There were lots of people sitting around the circle in chairs watching and listening to the dancers and singers. I was told that historically, when these dances were held outside, the children would be watching from outside of the circle, kept close to their parents by the darkness.
The Friendship Centres are open to everyone who is interested in aboriginal culture and many across the country have dance nights and crafts nights. Damon and Caroline both said that “Promoting respect and understanding is what we try to do.”
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