A place to finally call home

“While we recognize the past, we know the future is here, and we’re going to do things differently,” says Pam Glode-Desrochers. Photo: Kelly Clark

With the transfer of a culturally symbolic plot of land in downtown Halifax expected soon, a key piece of the new 70,000-square-foot Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre is settling into place. Now, the real work begins 

In the picture, the sign above the door of the artfully imagined Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre says “Wije’winen” or “Come with us.” So, you do. 

You move through the big glass doors and into the broad rotunda where dozens of people gather in groups to talk and listen, read and play music, share news and make plans. You glance at the walls, covered in local art, and into the corners, crowded with craft displays, before you wander over to the main circle where staff are explaining the programs this place offers the Indigenous community — housing, employment, health, justice, seniors, childcare, and family support — and the cultural and economic partnerships it helps build with everyone else. 

You may not be Indigenous, but you feel welcome. You think about the past, but mostly about the future. And you keep walking forward. Or you will soon, and not just in your mind. 

After two decades of dreaming, planning, and proposing, one of Halifax’s prominent and most enduring community organizations (founded in 1973), is on the brink of getting the land it needs to erect a permanent home of brick, mortar, steel, and concrete to replace its lovingly rendered drawings. Sources tell Unravel that HRM Council has all but approved the transfer to the centre of property once occupied by Canadian Blood Services at the corner of Gottingen Street and Rainnie Drive, not far from the fortress that Edward Cornwallis built

Although she’ll neither confirm nor deny the transfer, HRM advisor on Indigenous Community Engagement Cheryl Copage-Gehue says: “The city is very supportive of the new building, and there have been ongoing discussions with (the centre) about getting this asset up and open.” 

The move clears the way for a 70,000-square foot headquarters-cum-gathering place for about 200 staff and 5,000 Indigenous clients and patrons. According to executive director Pam Glode-Desrochers, who’s currently in temporary digs on nearby Brunswick Street, the need for something new and capacious is urgent. 

“(Where we are now) is certainly not sufficient,” she says. “We can’t even have a staff meeting with everybody in the same room. I’m very thankful to be in the space, but it’s not meeting the needs for the additional programming that we’re looking to bring on.” 

Planners envision a new 70,000-square-foot Mi’qmaw Native Friendship Centre serving 5,000 clients. Photo: Bruce Murray

More than this, she adds, the new home is crucially, symbolically significant. Indeed, there’s a reason why, other than its availability, she and the centre’s board chose this spot in the shadow of 18th-century battlements and cannons where colonization began. 

“I actually stopped by the property the other day and stood there looking up at Citadel Hill,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking what a legacy piece this place will be for the Mi’kmaq, and for any Nova Scotian. It says that while we recognize the past, we know the future is here, and we’re going to do things differently.”

That’s been a monstrously tough promise to keep. History is an unforgiving anchor. “I do worry people will begin to forget about the first 215 kids that were found,” Glode-Desrochers says. “I worry the Truth and Reconciliation report gets put on a shelf and starts gathering dust like all of these other great studies and reports.” 

As Indigenous scholar David Joseph Gallant points out in his 2022 Canadian Encyclopedia update, not only do the Mi’kmaq continue to reel from the latest revelations, the “lasting trauma of residential schools, the cultural, generational and economic dislocation” continues to ricochet. 

“In the 1940s,” he writes, “the Department of Indian Affairs forced more than 2,000 Mi’kmaq living in numerous small communities to relocate to government-designated reserves. The moves, undertaken for the sole purpose of streamlining government administration were fraught with mismanagement and experimental tactics, and had disastrous effects on the communities. Homes, churches and industries were abandoned and replaced with poor conditions and economic dependency.” 

Since then, the rush into the cities, particularly Halifax, has been inexorable. 

“The majority of us are working, living, and playing in an urban context because it’s just basic,” Glode-Desrochers says. “You go to school here, you find a job here. We all want safe, affordable housing, access to education, and to food security. For some reason, people seem to think we want different things, but we all want the same things in life, right?” 

Glode-Desrochers certainly did when she first arrived at the centre from Millbrook First Nation as a summer student in 1989. For 17 years, it had been running cultural, social, educational, economic, and health programs specifically designed to fight the dislocation and isolation many Indigenous people felt while making the tough transition from their traditional communities to the stark and naked city. 

She says her own move and first job with the centre changed her life. “I’m 200-per-cent sure I would not be here today without the support I received. I was never questioned about who I was or where I came from. I was completely accepted.” 

It seemed natural to return the favour. 

In no time, she became a “true believer,” accepting jobs with increasing responsibility and authority, generating ideas and fundraising to support the rising demand for new programs. By the early 2000s, she and the board of directors also began to realize they were going to need more room. 

But not just any room. According to its website, “Foremost among site location criteria (was) to have an iconic, culturally-relevant building to provide services to … a growing and diverse Indigenous urban population, and to provide visibility to Indigenous culture in a way that instills pride in our people and welcomes everyone.” 

By 2013, as the new executive director, Glode-Desrochers was spending most of her time knocking on government doors, testing interest, and pursuing leads. “There’s a lot of people who don’t understand the world of not-for-profit work,” she says. “You are constantly writing proposals, and not all of them are funded. Quite often it’s driven by what I always call the political flavour of the month … I won’t lie, though. My ultimate goal is never to have to write another proposal.” 

After 36 years with the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Charlotte Bernard is about to be part of a big transformation. Photo: Bruce Murray

Still, she says, it’s worth the effort. “I believe we save lives and I believe we can change the impact of colonization on our community. I have even seen members of my own staff shift and change and believe in and be proud of who they are when they’re given a little bit of language, culture, ceremony, and tradition.” 

Nothing about this surprises people who know the community model Glode-Desrochers espouses. Alex Paul, executive director of Mi’kmaw Economic Benefits Office, based in Membertou First Nation, points out that the national friendship centre movement in Canada has been around as long as he has. Self-determined, Indigenous owned and operated, these hubs were designed to support Indigenous people living in urban, rural, and remote settings. About 126 currently operate across the country, including the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto, which he says was “instrumental” to him when he was in his 20s. 

“I’m a scoop kid,” he explains, referring to the Sixties Scoop, when the Canadian government enacted a series of policies enabling child welfare authorities to take Indigenous children from their families and communities for placement in foster homes. “My mom and my father were about 16 years old and knew they were pregnant with me … Encouraged by Catholic Children’s Aid, they gave me up for adoption as soon as I was born, and I went into the system. So, I was raised by non- Indigenous parents.” 

Paul says both his families are “wonderful,” but adds he would not likely have understood what it meant to be Indigenous without that centre. 

“It was where I got my first sense of belonging,” he says. “It was the first place that gave me an opportunity to volunteer and to help members of my own community. It was also the place that gave me the desire to connect with my actual community and my actual family. Without that experience, I may not have even gone down that path. I may have been too afraid.” 

Glode-Desrochers sees that fear on faces in her community every day. Hers is the only friendship centre of its kind in Nova Scotia. And the people keep coming. When she took over as executive director her annual budget was about $1.2 million (funded more or less evenly by the federal and provincial governments) to support seven programs. Today it’s $15 million for 55 programs. 

“We may support over 5,000 people now, but I suspect there’s more than 20,000 working and living in Halifax,” she says. “We literally have people from all First Nations right across Canada. We have Metis from out West. We have also seen a huge influx of Inuit people.” 

And she expects that growth to continue. “Whether it’s the medical health centre that we just opened, or employment training, we have lots of things happening,” she says. “Develop Nova Scotia actually gave us a property down on the waterfront, so we’re going to start looking at some tourism and social enterprise opportunities … The need for the new friendship centre is not just for breaking down barriers and building relationships, but for actually providing a safe space for my own community members to come in and see themselves.” 

Paul appreciates the urgency. “I really applaud Pam for having this vision, and having the patience to navigate it,” he says. “It’s an incredible testament to her leadership. She and the board of the friendship centre have this amazing commitment. It will be an incredible gem the Indigenous community needs badly. It will be fantastic when, not if, it happens.” 

Glode-Desrochers also sees the pieces falling into place. In May, the federal government promised $4 million for design and construction (a bill that could run as high as $50 million when the dust settles). The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency followed with $910,000. 

As for the reported land transfer from HRM, she smiles and speaks circumspectly. 

“I think we have some really good indications that this is going to happen at all levels of government,” she says. “But I also think the trigger piece was, or is, HRM’s ability to move that (Canadian Blood Services) land from economic development (use) into the community stream for us … I don’t think that’s any secret.” 

That, too, may be a welcome sign of the times. 

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