Changing the services system

Scott Clark on Commercial Drive.

Scott Clark on Commercial Drive.

Scott Clark sits outside of a coffee shop on Commercial Drive wearing a black sweater with the words ‘QUIET’ on the front, but he may one of the loudest voices in the aboriginal services community when it comes to changing the current system.

Clark has been the executive director of Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE) since 2009, an organization that seeks to improve the social, economic and cultural health of aboriginals in Vancouver.

“We go head to head with virtually everyone, we’re not well received by a lot of them,” Clark said. “I don’t give a shit either.”

Clark works around the Downtown Eastside and Grandview-Woodland areas, both of which are home to a high proportion of aboriginal people. Aboriginals make up approximately 10 per cent of the population in both, compared to two per cent of the total Vancouver population. The Downtown Eastside is Canada’s poorest postal code, and many of these aboriginal people live in poverty. While there are over 200 social service providers in this area, Clark said that they do not work together.

“The strategy that exists today in the Downtown Eastside is one that’s segmented, segregated, competitive and quite dysfunctional,” said Clark. “Even if it’s not deliberate the facts speak for themselves. Putting this many people with this many issues, regardless of their ethnic background, into a small community is irresponsible.”

Clark said the way the current aboriginal services system is set up funnels marginalized individuals into the Downtown Eastside and puts them at risk.

“Some service provider down there thinks that you should service us in the Downtown Eastside amongst all the pimps, the johns, the drugs addicts, and gangs,” Clark said. “It’s filling fucking pockets.”

The heavy concentration of aboriginal service providers in the area can be blamed for this funnelling process, Clark says.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, an aboriginal planner with the City of Vancouver, said that the problems caused by concentrating aboriginal services in a poor area are understood by the city.

“Because we have a large aboriginal population in Metro Vancouver, we have a number of aboriginal people who will travel in from the other cities just to access these aboriginal specific services,” Gosnell-Myers said. “Not everybody feels comfortable going into certain neighbourhoods, and this is something we are taking into consideration as we look at our community planning.”

Lou Demarais, executive director of the Vancouver Native Health Society in the Downtown Eastside, said that the services are concentrated because they are needed there.

“They find some affordability in this area that they can’t find anywhere else,” Demarais said.

But Clark said that this current model has led to the ghettoization of aboriginal people. He advocates spreading these services throughout Vancouver’s other 23 communities, allowing aboriginals to have access to services in their own backyard.

“Aboriginal people live in all communities, so services should be accessible all over,” Clark said. “The primary discourse is you have to go to the Friendship Centre or some kind of aboriginal center. No, you have a responsibility to serve them.”

Demarais agrees to some extent, but said, “I don’t think that you should go too far away from where people are actually concentrated, so it strikes me that setting up aboriginal services in Shaughnessy or Kerrisdale would be a little folly.”

ALIVE works with the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, which works to apply service strategies to a community centre model. Membership to the centre is free for all residents in the area. This allows people of all backgrounds and income levels to have access to a variety of services and allows a strong community to form. Ray-Cam is by no means an aboriginal-specific centre as it caters to all the residents of the area. Clark wants to see this no-fee model adopted at all community centres throughout Vancouver.

“We’ve got aboriginal people living in every community in Vancouver, why the hell aren’t you engaging them?” said Clark. “They don’t ask why [aboriginal people] don’t make it there, and it’s because of the fees and it’s because of the discrimination.”

Gosnell-Myers does not see no-fee community centres as a viable solution to the concentration of services problem.

“Perhaps it’s not fair to say that no-fee would fit with every single [community centre],” said Gosnell-Myers. “Yes, community centres should be inclusive to everybody, and they are, but it’s the approach that needs to be looked at. Aboriginal people feel comfortable where there are other aboriginal people.”

But Clark says that aboriginal people simply want access to the same services as others.

“They want what every other Vancouverite wants,” said Clark. “They want education, they want daycare, they want employment, they want to see themselves reflected in their community. They’re very proud of who they are.”

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