Ceremony and celebration marked the grand opening of a new First Nations Wellness Centre (FNWC) in Williams Lake Friday, Nov. 4.
The centre opened earlier in October to serve people from the 15 First Nations communities in the region and their families.
“This is about inter-generational healing,” said Wayne Christian, the Secwépemc Nation representative and one of the three Interior Region representatives to the First Nations Health Council as he led a prayer ceremony.
The FNWC is a model of First Nations primary health-care service delivery, combining primary health care, social services and Indigenous health supports in one team-based care model. It will eventually have 16 full-time equivalent (FTE) clinical staff that will include primary care providers, traditional wellness healers and allied health practitioners, and 19 FTE staff overall, including administration support, leadership and clinical services. The centre will prioritize hiring based on the priorities identified by the Nations during extensive engagement sessions over three years.
First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) worked with communities from Dakelh Dené Nation, Secwépemc Nation and Tsilhqot’in Nation to design the centre, starting with meetings over four years ago.
Tsideldel First Nation Chief Otis Guichon said the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the centre’s opening.
Construction crews then transformed a former office building in the 200 block of First Avenue North into a space with lots of light, dozens of windows, Indigenous art and easy access.
Lisa Montgomery-Reid, vice president of regional operation with FNHA said the goal of the centre is cultural safety.
“The priorities have been identified by our nations for GPs (general practitioners) and NPs (nurse practitioners). Traditional wellness is a key component in all three of our nations as partners here. That will be the cornerstone of our work,” Montgomery-Reid said. “There is a lot of history behind this centre.”
Opening the centre with a ceremony is important, she added, because it is about the future and blessing everyone who comes through the doors.
Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) elder Virginia Gilbert gave an opening prayer, asking for help for the young people struggling with alcohol and drugs.
“We are losing them so fast and it seems like every other day we are burying somebody. I’m glad this is happening here,” she said about the new centre.
WLFN Chief Willie Sellars welcomed everyone to the traditional territory of his nation and said just seeing the number of people crammed into the new centre for the opening - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - made him happy.
“We continue to hold ourselves up,” Sellars said. “We continue to put health at the forefront and that is very apparent by us coming together. It’s good to see leadership from the city, from the province. I look at where we are in this journey of reconciliation and this journey of healing.”
After the blessing ceremony, the crowd moved to the Cariboo Recreation Complex Gibraltar Room as it was slushy outside and not conducive to an outdoor gathering as originally planned.
A gratitude ceremony in the Gibraltar Room took place where health staff handed out gifts such as blankets, apples, cans of salmon, honey, dried fruit, headlamps and more to everyone present.
While lunch was served, various people gave remarks.
Chiefs from all the nations spoke about the importance of health, that it was a good day to be Indigenous and good to see change in health care for First Nations.
“The health of my people is the biggest concern I have,” said Tsilhqot’in National Government tribal chair Chief Joe Alphonse, noting taking charge of health is one aspect of self-government.
He said the new centre will be a space where First Nations will feel respected.
Richard Jock, FNHA chief administrative officer, said the centre will serve as a beacon of hope for other communities that are taking on the work of developing their own.
“There will be 15 of these centres led by First Nations people,” Jock said.
Ministry of Health executive director of primary care Kelly McQuillen attended and spoke on behalf of the ministry.
“This place, this region, the people here have played such an important role in shining a light on the injustices that are part of the history of Canada,” she said. “The injustices that remain with us today.”
McQuillen said culture supports healing and culture is medicine.
Williams Lake Mayor Surinderpal Rathor attended with councillors Angie Delainey, Joan Flaspohler and Michael Moses.
Rathor said he was honoured to be invited and told the crowd the city is ready to work cooperatively with all First Nation communities in the region.
B.C.’s minister of health Adrian Dix made a statement in a news release noting the centre marks an important step forward in creating lasting equity in the healthcare system and reconciliation in the province.
“The guidance from our Indigenous partners is crucial in our delivery of all social services, especially health. I look forward to seeing the success of this centre and how it will inform future collaborations,” Dix said.