New Centre Empowers West Coast Moms

By Lloyd Dolha

It’s the first of it’s kind in Canada and an internationally proven model that has demonstrated their worth in the struggling subsistence economies of eastern Europe and the war-ravaged villages of continental Africa.

The Aboriginal Mother Centre of Vancouver provides a wide range of services to young single aboriginal mothers giving hope to these young moms and the chance to climb up the social ladder out of the dependency and societal ills of the downtown eastside to a brighter tomorrow.

“When people are empowered, it starts to build self esteem and confidence. It’s amazing what happens,” says Penelope Irons, executive director of the Aboriginal Mother Centre. “We’ve got women who were on welfare who are now in university or now have jobs.”

Irons, a 45 year-old Haida from Masset, said she first heard of the concept of a mother centre while she was working for the Canadian centre for Foreign Policy Development in the federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

The concept of a “mother centre” was established out of a grass roots movement in Germany in 1989. The centers were developed to address the needs of women and children by recreating family and neighborhood structures in communities destroyed by totalitarian systems, war and modernization. The innovative mother centre model creates new channels for female participation and leadership in communities – revitalizing community and neighborhood culture.

The rationale was that “it is cheaper and more far-reaching to invest in preventative policies, than to pay the high costs when family socialization has already become dysfunctional.”

Today, there are over 1,000 mother centres operating in seven countries worldwide. They can be found in the countries of the Czech and Slovak Republics as well as Africa and North America.
Indeed, the Aboriginal Mother Centre is a member of the Mother Centers International Network of Empowerment or MINE. MINE, incidentally, was awarded the United Nation’s prestigious Dubia International Award for best practices to improve the living environment in 2002.

Returning to Vancouver in 1999, Irons began to cultivate the concept of a mother centre to meet the needs of the growing population single, unwed aboriginal mothers in the downtown eastside and in February 2002, was incorporated as a non-profit society called the Aboriginal Mother Centre Society or AMCS.

Native moms at high risk of violence
Through her research, Irons discovered that there are few preventative programs that serve an extremely high-risk group like aboriginal single mothers. Young, single aboriginal mothers are most notably the poorest marginalized group in Canada. Some forty-five per cent (45%) of aboriginal children live in single parent families in urban centres in British Columbia, more than twice the general population. Aboriginal families are younger with teen births thirteen (13) times higher than the mainstream population in Canada. These young mothers are at high risk of being involved in family violence, substance abuse, sex trade and long-term welfare dependency.
According to its literature, the AMCS is an “innovative adaptation of the mother centre model primarily serving aboriginal women, children and their families.”

It’s a place where women can feel safe to bring their children to access integrated community-based services that meet their basic needs as single moms.

At the AMCS, mothers and their children can drop in daily and organize their lives around practical day-to-day issues in a family-friendly environment where concerns around child or elder care can be addressed. The young moms can also receive life skills counseling and skill development to help gain self-esteem in a mentor friendly environment.

The centre is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. They employ 11 full time staff and have over 70 volunteers who receive small incentive stipends for their involvement. Each day, hot meals are served for anyone on an open-door policy. An early childhood development programs is also available to assist young moms in raising healthy happy children. The centre is working towards developing a day-care centre and is currently seeking funding.

There’s also a working group developing a program for sex trade workers with an exit strategy to help them off the street.
The AMCS is also working towards self-sufficiency through small business development. They currently own and operate Mama’s Wall St. Studio- Knit Wear, which has four mechanical weaving machines making wool blankets, scarves, toques and conference bags.

Mama’s Wall St. Knit Wear Studio won a contract for 7,000 environmentally-friendly conference delegate bags made of hemp for the World Urban Forum conference held in Vancouver in June.
That contract employed 50 people for two months. People employed were young moms on social assistance, disabled and elders. Mama’s Wall St. Studio has since won smaller contracts for conference bags with the exposure from the World Urban Forum.

The centre also has plans to purchase jewelry and craft business from internationally reknowned aboriginal artist Richard Krentz. The business specializes in the creation of miniature bentwood boxes with ongoing guaranteed contracts of $100,000 to the centre with final sale to be completed within three months. There are also plans for a courier service business.

“Right from the beginning I had that social enterprise concept because the centre is based on best practices. So it’s all about sustainability – sustainability of the neighbor hood. I thought ‘what an amazing concept,’ we wouldn’t have to rely on government funding.

“If we could start a couple of businesses eventually we could become sustainable. We could actually do what we know works to move women off welfare to work using an empowerment approach, empowering women rather than forcing them into programs that just don’t work,” said Irons.

For Christmas, one of the local Anglican churches will be hosting a fundraising dinner with an auction selling 100 tickets. The details of that initiative fundraiser have yet to be announced.

But in the meantime, the bulk of the centre’s funding comes from a variety of sources to meet their program and service needs. These include: Vancouver Aboriginal Child And Family Services Society; Vancouver Coastal Health Authority; First Nations Employment Society; Lu’ma Native Housing; and the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services.

Irons laments the huge amount of time she spends writing proposals rather than advocating for families at risk.

“We’re writing proposal after proposal; they’re all project-based. There is no core funding. If we had just one or two funding sources we could actually do a lot more because my time is used up writing proposals.

“If government was smart, they would put all the funding together to create a demonstration project. There are over a thousand mother centres in the world and ours is the only one in Canada.”