AFCS Spotlight : Saskatoon Indian & Metis Friendship Centre

Interview with Executive Director Bill Mintram

August 30, 2016

Bill Mintram knows a lot about giving back, and the Executive Director of the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre (SIMFC), and proud member of Saskatoon’s Metis community, has a lot of opportunities with the Friendship Centre to do just that! The soft spoken 32 year old is not only the public face of the local Friendship Centre; he is also the Secretary for the National Association of Friendship Centres, a member of the CBC Saskatchewan Future 40, the husband of Marylou Mintram, and the father of Ethan Mintram. I spoke with him at the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in order to learn about his work with the SIMFC. 

So how did someone like Bill become involved with the Friendship Centres?

As he tells it: “As a youth I had attended the pavilion for Folkfest that the Saskatoon Friendship Centre hosts and when I graduated grade twelve I attended the grad event…I had received a couple scholarships at that event: the community service award and the Catholic School Division’s Aboriginal student award”. “Or something like that,” He adds. “With that event I helped out a little bit and got to know some of the people that worked here”. Bill continued his involvement in Indigenous issues after finishing university, having the opportunity to travel across Canada working on the impacts of residential schools while based in Ottawa and with running a “Youth and Elder” conference.
 
When that job had wrapped up Bill ended up working with the SIMFC in January of 2011, entering as their Community Programs Coordinator. He has been the Executive Director of the SIMFC for the last three years.
 
When Bill isn’t running the Friendship Centre he is still heavily involved in the Friendship Centre movement. He serves as a volunteer for the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), where he has been elected three times in many years to be Secretary of the NAFC, a slightly unusual occurrence given the two-year terms involved that Bill seems to at least be a good sport about. As he tells it, “Funny enough, I had to run again the next year due to changes in the not-for-profit corporations act to change our bylaws [at the AGM] in Vancouver, and then my term was technically up then for a two year term after that, so I had to run again…. I had to run three years in a row to maintain that position”. But he did, and in his words “the membership continues to intrust me with those responsibilities”.
 
To him the extra responsibility comes with the ability to do his job better than he would otherwise be able to. Through the National Association he is able to travel to centres across the country and therefore is able to see the interconnectedness of his work,  from the local level all the way up to the national level.  All of Bill’s work with the NAFC is without pay and he often has to schedule time off as Executive Director of the SIMFC in order to volunteer, but if it’s too much responsibility for him he gave no signs to that end. Instead he called it an “honour” to be a representative for 118 Friendship Centres nationally as one of the hats he wears while working and advocating for the Friendship Centre movement. Additionally, Bill serves on a variety of boards and committees within the community of Saskatoon, both as an individual and as a representative of the SIMFC, including: the Saskatoon Public Library Aboriginal Advisory Committee, the Saskatoon Health Region First Nations/Metis Health Council, Poverty Reduction, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
 
I asked Bill to break down some of the roles the Friendship Centre had within the community. He had been making references to various programs, making it apparent that there were a lot of different aspects going on at the same time in the SIMFC.
 
“There’s a lot that gets done,” Bill admits.

 

The exterior of the SIMFC: located at 168 Wall Street
 

But it doesn’t get done alone. The SIMFC has a large staff of close to thirty people handling the day-to-day operations as well as specialized initiatives and programs, their largest initiative being their newly-expanded housing initiative, through which the SIMFC provides rapid and extended housing help for those either struggling to keep or needing a place to live. The Friendship Centre acts as the “input” for the Housing First Initiative, an initiative led by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and Saskatoon & Area United Way. People that are in need of housing support are directed to the SIMFC, either by appointment or by walk-in, and are interviewed to best determine a plan for help and the provider. Through this program eligible people are provided with housing support for up to two years, or six months through the rapid housing supports.
 
Those who work in the housing program have a responsibility to pre-screen those seeking support in order to identify those with the greatest need. This serves an ethical as well as a practical purpose, “It’s fairly invasive questions that you have to ask somebody to know how to best support them, and you don’t want to be asking them those types of questions unless you know they are going to be supported,”.  There are many places in Saskatoon that deal with the different specifics of homelessness, such as the Lighthouse Supported Living Inc., and the White Buffalo Youth Lodge, but the idea of centralizing the intake is to prevent individuals from going from place to place, taking assessments and getting denied and repeating the process until they finally get support.
 
Another program that the Friendship Centre uses to help community members is their Youth Works Program. Youth that have been found guilty of minor offences have an opportunity to work off their fines by working restitution with the centre. These youth do odd jobs such as removing graffiti for the city, cleaning up back alleys, as well as assisting Elders in doing tasks such as raking leaves and shoveling snow. Bill notes that they have the lowest re-offender rate of any similar program in the province. The biggest factor in keeping that rate low, according to the coordinator for that program, is the conversations and mentorship that the Elders give to the youth involved.
 


A worker grabs supplies in the lower board room


These front-line programs are just a one aspect of what the SIMFC delivers to the community. They also have supports and programs for domestic violence, HIV, Indigenous languages, dancing, camps, addictions recovery, and storytelling, as well as holiday parties, children’s events, and the annual jigging competition. The SIMFC aims to be a holistic service provider, a space for people to feel comfortable in and welcomed by, and their tagline “Your Home fire Away From Home” is reflective of that. It is a representation of the organization’s all-encompassing, and friendly, nature. Bill describes his work with the SIMFC as, “largely building and maintaining relationships” saying that, “As an Aboriginal organization, kinship is very important”.  
 
The SIMFC is a frequent partner with other local organizations to better meet the needs of the community. They just finished their partnership with the University of Saskatchewan to support students on campus through the Urban Partnerships Program and are pursuing a similar partnership with Sask Polytechnic in the coming year.  About two years ago there was a meeting between the SIMFC and other organizations that offer evening meal programs to help fill service gaps. “We host a meal program Tuesdays and Thursdays, and at the time I think it was Mondays and Fridays,” Bill said. “Before we started talking to each other there was duplication, where there was more than one meal being served some nights and some nights [there was] nothing.” He continued, “That’s one very real picture of…what benefit there can be when you’re willing to work together”, a simple reminder of the importance of thoughtful and responsible action as an entire community. The Friendship Centre’s programming is always informed and implemented with feedback from its members and program participants. This feedback means the programming can better reflect the needs of those who are using the centre.
 
With regards to the importance of responding to the community Bill said that, “If it isn’t organic then you’re going out to purposefully try and do one little thing instead of working with the community on the larger scale and it fits naturally. Having those relationships [with other organizations] helps us work in a way… that makes it much easier when you are taking on initiatives with the community supporting you versus trying to do it on your own, or doing something that maybe isn’t properly meeting the unique needs of the community.”

 

The gymnasium of the SIMFC is used for sports as well as performances
 
 
And it really is a community. No one is excluded from any service or program at the SIMFC. It, like all Friendship Centres, operates on a “Status-Blind” policy. This means that they are open to all people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, disability, or marital status.  There is a focus on meeting the needs of the urban Aboriginal community that makes up approximately 9% of the population within Saskatoon, but the programs have an open door for anyone that has an interest
 
“This means you have groups coming together that you wouldn’t usually see,” Bill says. “There’s a dynamic that can be found in Friendship Centres that often can’t be found in very many other places within [the] urban environment”. He continues, “In the beading program you have university students, kohkums, and individuals trying to get away from using alcohol… [people] from various  journeys and various walks of life… they all get to know each other, they all support each other. In most other places within an urban centre, you have your students and they’ll just hang around other students, you’ve got your professionals and they’re going to maybe hang around more [with] the professionals. You don’t have all of the community with the various walks of life all coming together and having fun together, and building relationships with each other and supporting each other in a really good way. That’s one of the unique things about the Friendship Centres and the Aboriginal community, because we try not to judge those around us… that can create an environment where it’s a gathering place in the community, it’s a place to connect people. That’s one of the reasons Friendship Centres were started…. it’s been with those principles. We want to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal people in the setting of Saskatoon. We want to be that gathering place. We want to be a place to connect people with the urban environment, and in doing that create a place where everyone is welcome and we want to support and engage everyone wherever they’re at. ”.
 
One of the major ways that the SIMFC gets to show new people what goes on inside its doors is with their Pavilion in Folkfest, Saskatoon’s annual multi-cultural celebration, which wrapped up earlier this month. Over the three days of Folkfest there was between 6000 and 8000 people who entered the Friendship Centre to enjoy traditional food, dancing, and handcrafted wares for the 35th year in a row. The beauty of this event is that many of them were setting foot in the Friendship Centre for their first time ever. 
 
“[When you have] people that are coming into the Friendship Centre that are Non-Aboriginal, hopefully as a result of coming in they learn that many of those [assumptions] they might have had aren’t true. That’s part of the hope. That’s why we run the Folkfest pavilion. We want to be able to showcase the uniqueness of the community: the vitality, the strengths, the culture, and the languages.  [We want] to be able to really showcase who we are… to overcome stereotypes and myths that can really hurt the way our community is understood”. 
 
As Bill sees in his day-to-day routine, there is some lost ground to make up on the path to better understanding. An issue that often comes up in his work is a tendency for Non-Aboriginal people to want to lump all Aboriginal people together. “There are many Nations within Canada,” Bill says, “[and we] need to recognize [the] unique protocols and histories of these Nations”. 
 
But the SIMFC is determined to teach that understanding to anyone who is interested in sharing in it, and they have seen people respond to their unique way of serving the community. “[You can tell] people are engaged by their feet through the door,” Bill says, “We’ve been seeing our numbers continue to grow over the years, we must be doing something right!” 
 
To effectively bridge the different needs of the community, you have to meet people where they are at. If those in the community don’t want to partake in a particular program, then the SIMFC cannot compel them to do so. However, Bill is optimistic that the more entertaining and social aspects of their programs can be a way to connect the urban Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal with the more personal and cultural aspects of the SIMFC. 
 
                                            
"...Maybe one day they'll say "I really want to learn more about my culture"... and now they've gone from just coming to the jigging competittion every year to coming out to the cultural workshops."
   Photos of past events in display cases 

"Sometimes people just come—every year—for the jigging competition. But how we want to frame it is, if they’re coming out every year for the jigging competition, we want to make sure there is every opportunity for them to know that they can be supported or engaged through any of the other things we provide as well. It’s up to each individual to decide, “Where do I want to be engaged? What are my passions? Where do I want to learn and grow?”
 
He describes the situation like this: “[If] our doors are open for them to engage… then maybe they’ll say one day, “I really want to learn more about my culture, and I hear there is sash weaving down at the Friendship Centre. I think I’ll go and learn a bit of that,” and now they’ve gone from just coming to the jigging competition every year, to coming out to the cultural workshops. I think it is really about how you position yourself as an organization to ensure that you’re trying to always have those doors open.”  
 
With Folkfest now concluded, and the fall term fast approaching, there is certain to be a few new faces walking through those doors and into the SIMFC. Perhaps some of the travellers that stopped by stamped their passports at the SIMFC only to find themselves explorers at their new “Homefire Away From Home”, people looking for a connection to Indigenous heritage within the urban environment. Or perhaps university or college students new to the city want to reconnect with the familiarity of their culture in the impersonal rush that is city life. 
 
No matter the case, Bill isn’t worried about the SIMFC’s place in the community, “You will always have new people connecting as long as you are continuing to reach out and build those connections and bridges in meeting them”.

A woman sits in the SIMFC lobby



Harrison Bull