Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre

Jul 2021 | Community Profiles

As an Indigenous person, being away from your Nation can leave you feeling lost, says Joel Harry, the director of program development at the Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre. 

“I come from the Tla’amin First Nation which is north of Powell River. I was born and raised there. I lived there until I was the age of 17 and I graduated, and then I went up to VIU and did my Bachelor of Arts degree,” says Harry. 

“When I live back home, I have all this support around me. We have Chief and Council and the band office there that give us access to programs, services, financial support, things like that.” 

You are also surrounded by your culture, he says. “[Ceremony, singing, dances, potlatches] – when you are back home, living in your First Nations community, these things happen weekly. 

“When you move to a bigger city that’s away from home, you feel lost and disconnected from culture.” 

The Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre (NAC) works to provide those kinds of supports and cultural opportunities to Nanaimo’s urban Indigenous community. 

History and Programs:

Established in 2013, NAC’s vision is to reach a 100 per cent high school graduation rate for aboriginal students in Nanaimo and Ladysmith. To do that, it offers a variety of educational and cultural opportunities for toddlers to youths, as well as housing and outreach programs. 

Many of NAC’s programs can be accessed by on-reserve First Nations members and non-Indigenous community members. However, Harry says NAC’s focus is on the urban Indigenous population. 

In education-specific programming, NAC offers the Munu Learning Centre (a licensed daycare for Indigenous children ages 3-5), Nisaika Kum’tuks Learning Centre (an Indigenous-infused learning environment for students grades k-7), Tsawalk Learning Centre (for students grades 8-12), and the Aboriginal Support Child Development program (ASCD). 

ASCD is an outreach program aimed at providing support to toddlers ages 1-12 and their families in daycare centres in Nanaimo and Ladysmith. 

Currently (the spring of 2021), the Nisaika Kum’tuks and Tsawalk learning centres are in danger of being dismantled. The NAC has launched a GoFundMe Page in an effort to turn these learning centres into the first urban Indigenous independent school in B.C. 

NAC also runs a variety of youth and culture programs. Some of these, like weekly Culture Nights, have not been able to run during the pandemic. The programs focus on youth leadership, participation in sports and cultural opportunities, like Tribal Journeys. 

Engaging in Culture:

Seeing the urban Indigenous community engage in their culture has been powerful, says Harry. 

“I’ve been in so many rooms with the same youth that, from the start, would just be at our Culture Nights just watching from the table, eating the food and watching our staff or elders in residence do the drumming, do the singing. 

“But over time, when you keep re-introducing that culture, they eventually begin to get up off the table and they start to join in. And then the next thing you know they have their own drum that they are beating, and they have their own regalia that they are dancing in. It is amazing because you see all these shy, disconnected people from their culture, and when you give them an opportunity, not only once, but over a period of time, you really get to see some of these young, Indigenous youth … really bloom and grow, and come out of their shell.” 

Other youth-focused programs include a health program that teaches life skills like cooking, budgeting and preparing for things like a drivers’ test. 

Homeless Supports:

A newly established program focuses on reaching homeless youth. The Ts’its’uw’atul’ program uses an RV to bring services, information and cultural connection to youth without a home. 

The NAC also engages in broader outreach and housing services. These include working with Nanaimo Foodshare on a good food box program. 

The centre also runs the Nuutsumuut Lelum housing on Bowen Road. It offers affordable housing for the Indigenous community, from youth to elders. 

NAC’s supports that are specifically for the homeless community are fairly new, says Harry. But they came from youth participating in a Youth Advisory Council. 

“They began doing outreach once a week for youth that were homeless here in various locations in Nanaimo. It started out as handing out basic need items, such as food and drink and hygiene kits. And then from there, we noticed a need and that’s where we started our mobile youth outreach program (Ts’its’uw’atul’). This began in December of 2020.” 

As a member of the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition, Harry says that NAC looks to represent the specific needs of the urban Indigenous population who often fall through the cracks.  

One of the messages NAC will look to speak to is the need for more outreach in the city, especially for youth. Also the need for collaborative partnerships and initiatives. 

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