From its humble beginnings in a small office donated on the Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) campus, the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre has certainly expanded and conquered many obstacles.
Starting as a group of volunteers in the late 70’s they came to understand the burdens' of transient native people in our province. The centre offered just a handful of basic programs such as an employment assistance program, arts programs (which saw the creation of the first book, a collaboration of the provinces Aboriginal artists work and bios), as well as a program similar to our more developed APN program, helping Aboriginal patients navigate around the healthcare system.
The Native Peoples Support Group, previously The Indian and Inuit Support group, conducted a feasibility study on the interest of a Friendship Centre in St. John’s, because of the growing population of Aboriginal people moving into or visiting the city. This report was then submitted to the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), who granted them permission and helped them attain funding.
In June 1983, The St. John’s Native Friendship Centre was legally established as a non-profit organization, spending a winter and spring at MUN with a small grant from Plura, a church based funding agency which allowed them to install a telephone line and purchase some office supplies but was still staffed by Volunteers. That April of 1983 The Secretary of State provided funding to the Centre allowing them to create a board of directors, 10 in total. Two from the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI), two from the Naskapi-Montagnais Innu Association, two from Labrador Innu Nation (LIA) now Mamit Innuat and 4 St. John’s residents, in hopes of representing all Aboriginal peoples of this province.
Soon after, the Friendship Centre was moved into a bigger building on 23 Queens Road and the first Executive Director, Edward Bennet was hired. As well as expanding its staff and space the Friendship Centre started to expand its scope into the non-native community; preparing media and workshops to educate non-natives; for example workshops for healthcare providers to help them understand Native culture, traditions and aspirations.
By 1985 there was a funding increase to allow for an assistant Director, as well the Conne River Band became independent of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, and so the board of directors was restructured to help ensure each Aboriginal group in Newfoundland and Labrador was represented. There were now 6 representatives for St. John’s and 1 for each Aboriginal group in the Province, The Innu, Inuit, Mi’kmaq and Métis.
In 1986 a new Executive Director was hired, Raphael Gregoire who helped the Centre access programs through the Canadian Employment and Immigration Commission as well as through the Provincial Social Services and have the capacity to hire new personnel. This new expansion and yet another increase in funding, saw the centre moving once more in the spring of 1987. This was done in hopes of establishing a hostel for transient Native peoples. However, this new location on 9 Military Road encountered zoning problems and the hostel was not approved.
It was also during this year that the Board was once again restructured to better reflect the needs of the increasing native population in St. John’s and 2 more board members were added, moving from 10 to 12, one for each Aboriginal group in the province (4) and 8 representatives for St. John’s. The following year there was another move ( 62 Campbell Avenue) and a new Executive Director, as well as an increase in CEIC and Social Service plans which again saw an expansion of personnel and programs.
Starting in the early to late 90’s the Friendship Centre again moved to Cashin Avenue and then to Casey Street, finally finding its permanent home at 716 Water Street in 2004. This new space gave us the room for our Four Winds Youth Centre as well as the Shanawdithit Shelter.
From just a handful of volunteers and a few basic programs, the St. John’s Native Friendship has come down a long road of success. Today the Centre has over 20 full time permanent staff, has more than tripled in size and is always expanding on its programs and services, such as an after school program, Women’s program, Aboriginal Arts program and an Employment assistance program, just to name a few.
Always striving to offer more to the Aboriginal and non-aboriginal population of the province.