Staff and board members with Fraser Cascade School District 78 have created a new, culturally appropriate aid for Indigenous students and their families.
Superintendent Balan Moorthy said the concept of the new Indigenous Friendship Centre originally arose when district staff realized a number of Indigenous students and their communities were struggling during the last two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s about ‘how do we have a space that allows us to bridge between the home and the challenges that families are having?’” said Stan Watchorn, the newly-appointed principal of special responsibility. Watchorn plays a central role in the Indigenous Friendship Centre. “Sometimes there’s a little bit of intimidation about going into a school. We see this as a way of bringing some of that and building connections and support for kids and families.”
“I think this is a safe place for (Indigenous students) to go get assistance socially, emotionally and academically, because there’s really no place for off-reserve people to go to get any kind of assistance outside of the school,” said SD78 board vice chair Cathy Speth.
Speth pointed out the board’s support of Watchorn’s new role, saying Watchorn has a “phenomenal” passion for Indigenous people and has earned the trust of local First Nations communities.
The Indigenous Friendship Centre is not a single location in SD78, but rather two different locations – the former site of C.E. Barry Intermediate School in Hope and a new building on Kent Elementary’s campus. There are plans for a third location to better serve communities in the northern parts of the district.
The potential uses for the new space stretch beyond pandemic-related concerns. The Indigenous Friendship Centre aimed not only to give First Nations students a safe and comfortable space that offers transitional support for students and families but to serve as a place to host culturally appropriate events and supports or even something as simple as sharing a meal.
Counsellor Bernard Klop said the friendship centre has the potential to help particularly off-reserve Indigenous students and families re-engage and reconnect with each other.
“Indigenous communities are very familial and community connectedness is really a key piece for them,” Klop added. “What COVID has really done is created a lot of disconnects. There’s a lot of isolation, and we know that can have significant impacts on emotional well-being.”
Watchorn added addressing and restoring that sense of community and connection is the first step toward helping students reach their full potential.
District principal of Indigenous education Christine Seymour said the creation of the Indigenous friendship Centre is a reflection of the district’s continued efforts to make space for Indigenous culture and teachings.
“I recently finished school and studied trauma, and through my studies and working with Bernard (Klop), I learned how the culture is integral to the healing of our people,” she said. “I think that this centre represents making space for Indigenous people to reclaim who we are again and to find out who we are and it will be a part of that journey for a lot of our students.”