To give an idea of the kind of service the Victoria Native Friendship Centre has provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, executive director Ron Rice tells a story about Elders playing bingo.
With in-person gatherings cancelled they were playing remotely, which meant getting everyone set up on Zoom — its own challenge — and using cards the friendship centre had distributed with weekly food hampers.
“I thought it was corny, but the staff member who was organizing it thought it would be really funny to send everyone the same bingo card for the first game,” Rice said.
To win, Elders had to fill the card, making matches for all 24 squares, which took some time.
“They played, and everybody yelled ‘bingo’ and the Elders thought it was the most hilarious thing,” Rice said. “There were 37 playing and they all yelled ‘bingo’ at the same time, and they must have laughed for 10 or 15 minutes about it.”
Finding ways to gather and laugh together have been important for a community that is accustomed to getting together both to celebrate and in times of crisis.
“When there’s a burden, we gather together to share that burden,” said Rice. “We’re having to come up with creative ways to practise our culture in a time when you can’t reach out and take someone by the hand, you can’t share a meal together.”
Some of the friendship centre’s services have continued uninterrupted. It manages 49 units of housing and continued to keep its emergency shelter and daycare open, as well as providing help for people who are homeless. Outreach services have continued, but virtually and electronically instead of in person.
But that meant many people who depended on the snacks and meals included in programs at the centre were missing them.
“One of the reports that was coming back fairly quickly was the reliance on food services,” Rice said. “This was having a detrimental effect on the community, so we started a food hamper program.”
The centre is now distributing more than 200 hampers in VNFC-branded red bags with white hearts on them to 500 individuals and families around Greater Victoria at a cost of between $5,000 and $7,500 a week.
The centre has a budget of about $8 million a year, and some money could be moved from existing programs to cover the costs of added services. But it’s also fundraising so it can meet the increased needs.
“One of the things we’re hearing anecdotally is this is putting a lot of pressure on couples, on families who are being forced to isolate or quarantine together, where plans are being interrupted for job searches, for back to school, those sort of things,” Rice said. “With that comes challenges and domestic violence.”
Also anecdotally, there has been a spike in young Indigenous people dying. “There was a spurt about two or three weeks ago where there were seven youth, either deaths or suicides, within seven or eight days of each other from Nanaimo south. Two or three of them in Greater Victoria and one who participated at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.”
Meeting the needs has meant an increased emphasis on fundraising. “It is a constant chore at this point,” Rice said, “which we do gladly because we know how important it is, but it’s certainly not exactly co-ordinated.”
In the early days of the pandemic the centre received $162,000 administered through the Victoria Foundation, with money from the Jawl Foundation and a fund led by the Times Colonist. The money went into the food hamper program, as well as extra sanitation and to setting some staff up to work remotely.
There was also funding from Indigenous Services Canada. Out of the first $305-million from the Indigenous Community Support Fund, the National Association of Friendship Centres received $3.75 million that it divided between 99 members, Rice said. The share that reached the VNFC was $30,060.
“To put that in context, B.C. First Nations received $41 million and that was simply a cheque,” Rice said. “It was based on population, remoteness and things like that, whereas friendship centres had to apply.”
The balance in funding has been “a little skewed” considering how many Indigenous people friendship centres serve, Rice said. Friendship centres have been reminding the provincial and federal governments that in B.C. somewhere between 80 and 85 per cent of the Indigenous population live off reserve.
Some argue that Indigenous people living off reserve are eligible for all the other COVID-19 related benefits that are available. But Rice said the same is true of people living on reserve, and there are many people who fall through the gaps or have difficulty showing they meet the criteria.
“The reality is the people that we serve, not all of them have the ease or ability to apply for some of that money directly,” Rice said. “It’s not that we are discouraging our people from applying for those funds, but it wasn’t sort of the end-all, be-all.”
Recently the federal government announced more money to be distributed to organizations serving urban and off-reserve Indigenous people, but Rice said it’s not clear yet how much will reach each centre.
“The $75 million that was announced for urban Indigenous organizations, we’ve been getting conflicting messages and we’re trying to figure out how exactly we’re supposed to access it,” Rice said. “We anticipate [receiving] it, but we have no way of predicting how much it will be.”
There have also been other private donations and Rice said there’s enough funding to last until late August or mid-September.
“The reason we’re continuing to look for support is our anticipation that the services we’ve created are going to be necessary for the rest of the fiscal year in some form,” Rice said. “Even with social distancing being relaxed and businesses being reopened, it’s not going to change necessarily the employment opportunities, so we think it’s important that we continue to raise funds for things like food hampers.”
Rice has been the executive director at the VNFC for the last 2.5 years and was on the board for 14 years before that. In one way or another he’s been involved with friendship centres since 1998.
But his experience goes back further. As a child in Duncan, he recalled, he and his brother loved to go to the centre each night to play pool. They were young enough that he remembers pushing a chair around so they could stand on it to reach the table.
It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that his mother, who died in December, explained to him why they’d been there. She was at risk of running out of oil to heat the family home and could only afford to turn it on for a short time while the kids went to bed, he said. “So after dinner we would go to the friendship centre for two or three hours and then come home and go to bed.”
The friendship centre movement had played a big part in his life without him even realizing it, Rice said. “My memory of that time was just fun and hanging out and being around the community and hanging out with my brother and my mom. It was this beautiful memory, not realizing the depth of it and what it actually meant in her eyes.”
“I think that has changed the way I look at things and making sure that when there are challenges, when there are hardships, it should always still feel like community and feel safe and feel fun.”
Bringing that spirit of love and friendship to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre’s work is important, whether it’s making sure food hampers feel like a gift or that Elders can enjoy each other’s company, he said. It’s all part of finding new ways to live and work together and lift each other up.
“Sometimes,” he said, “that means bingo.”
Read more: Indigenous, Health, Coronavirus
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