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Finding worth and feeling valued: Renovated Native Friendship Centre reaches out to urban Indigenous

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Cathy Dobson

The grand re-opening of the Sarnia-Lambton Native Friendship Centre represents a fresh start with expanded programming and a new focus on prevention for the local urban Indigenous population.

Donna Smith-Sutherland

“Sarnia is challenged because we are the only organization in the city that does this,” said the centre’s executive director Donna Smith-Sutherland at an open house Friday. “It’s like the City of Sarnia has been forgotten, so now we are doing everything we can.”

Sarnia had a Native Friendship Centre for years before it closed for renovations in 2021. Extensive reconstruction of the building at 233 Lochiel Street was funded by the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and took longer than expected.

The not-for-profit centre managed to provide programming off-site during that time, including youth activities and sports this summer. Finally, on-site programming will return Monday for the centre’s 100 or so members.

Much of that programming is new and designed to prevent mental health, addiction and homelessness issues, said Smith-Sutherland.

“Indigenous people have been severely impacted by historical trauma, and that trauma is so imbedded in the way we look at the world,” she said.

“Many times our people don’t necessarily choose to leave the First Nation but our reserve communities just don’t have the housing, jobs and resources for their populations,” said Smith-Sutherland.

The centre is a place for urban Indigenous of all ages to gather, socialize, connect with their culture and access services. The renovations include showers, a washer and a dryer in the finished basement.

Among the new programs is Rise N Shine, which offers breakfast and friendship to members who need it. Membership costs $2.

Extensive reconstruction of the building at 233 Lochiel Street included a new kitchen. (Cathy Dobson photo)

Indigenous members who pay the fee have the right to vote and help make decisions about what is offered through the centre, Smith-Sutherland said.

“We know our membership has increased dramatically and we believe it will continue to increase with the renovations completed,” she said. Not everyone who belongs to the centre participates in the programs. Some are service providers like Canadian Mental Health. 

The Native Friendship Centre makes a lot of referrals and does advocacy with local agencies to help its members deal with everything from the court system to housing.

Ten employees work at the centre and three more will be added soon, said Smith-Sutherland.

Drummer Derrick Bressette. (Cathy Dobson photo)

Meanwhile, the Native Friendship Centre is working with Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services to build a 40-unit, five-storey apartment building for Indigenous people on Confederation Street next to the Good Shepherd Lodge.

City council has approved rezoning for it and construction was expected to start last year. However, Smith-Sutherland said Friday that ground will be broken on the housing project sometime in October.

The centre is also organizing an Every Child Matters March, flag-raising and barbecue on Sept. 28 starting at 10 a.m. from its building.

To register, call 519-344-6164.

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