The Saskatoon Indian Métis Friendship Centre and its long history
- John Cuthand | October 19, 2021
Fifty years ago, the first Indian and Métis Friendship Centre in Saskatoon was above a vacuum cleaner store on 20th Street. There were dances most often featuring performances by the Knight brothers. Their repertoire included endless renditions of “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young.
At that time there were far fewer Indigenous people in the city and not so many places Indigenous people could meet and socialize. The centre was the Indigenous version of the welcome wagon.
Over the years the Indigenous migration from First Nations and Métis communities into the city took off like a moon rocket. The west side became increasingly Indigenous with a growing youth population, while the east side remains largely non-Indigenous with an aging population.
Crime, like in other prairie cities, has increased. There are now increasingly dangerous drugs, suicide, violence, addictions, homelessness and family break up. Youth gangs are dangerous, lost to their people and themselves. For many, it is the dark world, distant from a functional past.
No people self destruct. There is always a reason why things are the way they are. The way forward is sometimes the way back. The revitalized cultural spiritual healing path of the ancestors has helped many. Culture is therapy, or so the slogan goes. Easy to say but harder to do.
The Friendship Center introduced innovative, culturally-based programs in a way rigid head-based mainstream could not. It began with client-driven smudging, sharing circles, Elder talks and sweat lodges. There were originally two sweat lodges serving the city. One was Lakota, run by the Woods family, and the other Cree and Saulteaux, kept by the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College, which is now known as the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre. There are currently 14 lodges at last count. The Saskatoon Friendship Centre offers weekly rides to the well-attended Linklater family lodge outside the city. First Nation counseling has a traditional foundation with mainstream appropriation. Mainstream is most often the opposite with culture relegated to a mere add-on.
The centre at one time took the lead providing healing programs until other Indigenous-controlled community service organizations came on stream. In many ways it was the Friendship Centres and the treatment centres which primed the pump for the many Indigenous controlled healing initiatives which followed.
The old center was eventually replaced by a larger building on Wall Street, which now needs replacing. The current moldering building is cramped, worn and well past its prime. There are options. Not so many years ago the Saskatchewan Transit Company shut down province wide. The empty Saskatoon terminal is a block away and has had a For Lease sign posted for some time. It would make for an excellent greatly improved center. Should the center move to this location I can see the ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by a tribute to the past with the Knight brothers, now grown old, singing a rousing rendition of Cinnamon Girl as they first did in the original center 50 years ago, but this is just me.