• Sylvia Maracle at the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres main office in Toronto

    Sylvia Maracle, head of the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, wants to help correct the common misconception that all Indigenous Peoples only live in remote communities or on reserves. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

In the late 1960s, small groups of Indigenous women in Ontario hosted social gatherings in their homes, church basements and wherever else they could find space, to reconnect and strengthen cultural bonds after moving, or being displaced, from their small rural communities to larger cities and towns. What started then as informal get-togethers of friends has since grown into 28 non-profit friendship centres under the leadership of one governing body — the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres. Sylvia Maracle, the federation’s executive director who is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, has dedicated more than 40 years to improving the quality of life for Indigenous Peoples living in urban environments throughout Ontario. Now, as the federation celebrates its 50th anniversary, Maracle reflects on the successes of the federation’s past and looks to its future.

On Indigenous presence in urban areas

In Canada, 65 per cent of Indigenous Peoples do not live in their home territories or northern rural communities — they live in towns and cities. In Ontario, it’s 85 per cent. There’s a very prominent conversation going on in Canada about reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit. We need to extend this dialogue to discuss where Indigenous Peoples live because there is a notion in the media and in education that we all live in remote communities or on reserves and that’s simply not true. Indigenous Peoples are not an unseen, unnamed group somewhere — we live right where you live.

On her beginnings at the federation

I came to Toronto to take journalism at Ryerson University. I was a couple of hours away from my family and feeling homesick, so I went to the Student Affairs office and a counsellor told me I should check out what was then referred to as the Indian Centre. I volunteered pretty regularly there and, eventually, they asked me to join the board of directors when I was around 20 years old. I got involved in provincial and national activities there, but it came to a point where I graduated and had to get a job. I started working part-time as a summer student editing a newspaper for the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres. I’ve literally been involved with friendship centres since the fall of 1974. First as a volunteer, then a local board member and then I began to work full-time in 1978 before becoming executive director in 1979. I’ve been around for all but six of the centres’ foundings. I’ve watched them all grow and develop.

On the federation’s new Urban Indigenous Action Plan

The intent of the plan was to help Indigenous and non-Indigenous people learn how to talk to each other and create relationships. For example, Indigenous kids drop out of school because district school boards don’t know how to relate to them. These school boards don’t know how to ask for help, they don’t know how to change and they don’t know how to invite the Indigenous community to the discussion. The goal is to start a dialogue; Indigenous Peoples want to be part of it. Let’s talk about the systemic barriers that exist for us. We need to create opportunities to work with each other because we will both benefit from changing the current situation.

On implementing the plan

The federation has worked with district school boards and service boards in municipalities to create a strategic model for childcare in about 18 centres. We continue to have a few specific areas — health, justice, violence-related issues — where the action plan is used provincially. I recently came back from having conversations in Ottawa with a couple of ministers and they talked about implementing the plan nationally. The federation has done a lot of research and produced many reports and programming options, but you never know when you have the right idea at the right time. If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to be patient.

On determining centre needs

There is a set of priorities that is common to many centres, but there are some communities that have unique needs. For example, the centre in Geraldton, Ont., is doing a lot of work in early childhood education and family care. At the centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., there is an enormous push to help with Indigenous homelessness. There are a number of centres involved in a program called Urban Indigenous Homeward Bound, where the federation houses single-parent families that need help overcoming issues, such as addiction and poverty.

On the importance of communicating

Building relationships [between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people] is a critical element of friendship centres and yet, less and less of society is communicating in person. There is a societal transfer happening; we don’t talk to each other. I go to have coffee and people are sitting at the same table and texting — you’re at the same table, why aren’t you talking? It’s frustrating that people have lost their ability to be eloquent, to be orateurs, to tell stories or entertain people. Technology should be a tool for expanding communication, not a tool for limiting it. As we move forward and look for stronger relationships, we’re going to have to explain to non-Indigenous people that we don’t just want to text or send email, we want to take time to share ideas in person.

On the future of the federation

When the federation was founded, there were six friendship centres — today there are 28 and very shortly we will open our 29th. We have discussions about developing new centres in Brantford, Kingston and a few smaller communities. The whole notion of urban friendship centres is growing, but they have to engage with the community in other ways. In order to do that, many centres need more physical space to accommodate multiple activities at the same time. All friendship centres need to talk and figure out how to help the broadest base of the Indigenous community without everyone chasing the same money. Looking back on 50 years of the federation, things can change. They certainly have changed for the better.