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Bringing the Community Together for the Past Five Decades

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For many people, if you asked them what the legacy of the Elbert Chartrand Friendship Centre (ECFC) is, they would probably say that it is a beacon of hope and inspiration.
In fact, lifetime member David Gray said exactly that as he reflected on the legacy and reputation that the ECFC has in the Swan Valley community.
“It is a facility without which the Swan River Valley would be infinitely worse off and whose strength aids us all,” he said.
And, in the 50 years of having a local Friendship Centre, it has certainly made a difference in the community.
The movement of having Friendship Centres for Inuit, Métis, and First Nations people emerged in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, the Indigenous people of the Swan River Valley began to see the need for a place of their own, where they could meet to share concerns, or share in some recreation.
Originally known as the Swan River Indian and Métis Friendship Association, the first board made up of eight Indigenous and four non-Indigenous directors oversaw the activities of the Friendship Association when it first formed in 1962.
The first building was purchased in 1963 and has gone through quite a number of relocations since then as it expanded and the needs of the Friendship Centre evolved.
When the Friendship Centre was eventually incorporated in 1969 – from which we now celebrate the 50th anniversary – it was located at 503 Main Street, where the TD Bank now stands.
“I grew up in a time in the Swan River Valley when the interaction between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people was less interactive,” said Gray. “People tended to associate in silos, including the small communities in which they lived and people were homogenous in their viewpoints and history.”
In 1990, the Friendship Centre moved to where it is today at 1413 Main Street. A name change came a few years later in 1993, the 25th year since incorporation. Formerly known as the Swan River Indian and Métis Friendship Association, it then became know as simply the Swan River Friendship Centre, signifying that it is a place for everyone, and not just those of Indigenous culture or descent.
“Probably one of the biggest things that the community isn’t aware of is that we don’t just service the Indigenous populations; we also have services and programs for everyone in the community,” said Peter Fleming, who has served on the ECFC Board of Directors for eight years now, five of those as president.
The programming at the ECFC has also expanded during the decades in operation. In 1993, during their 25th year, the Swan River Friendship Centre employed 11 people. Now, as the ECFC, the organization is up to 30 employees, all working on countless programs and activities that work to make the Swan Valley area a better place to live, work, and play.
The ECFC is a place of education, starting with the Head Start program which provide early childhood learning. It also provides a space for Adult Education, as well as the Workplace Essential Skills Training, which includes a homelessness initiative.
The ECFC also tackles housing with the Swan River Friendship Centre Housing Corporation, which owns a number of properties in Swan River, and provides affordable living for those that need it.
“We’re ranked one of the top service providers for that in the province,” said Fleming. “The government has been reviewing everything, and we had a very good review from them in our management in that program.”
Career placement and guidance is also a service they provide that helps the community in a big way.
“If an individual walks in and says they need a job and what kind of training might they need for this job, we do have someone there to work with that individual and ask what that person has for schooling, where they see themselves, what are their limitations, and we will try to set them up for success,” said Fleming.
These programs are in addition to serving as a community gathering centre for special meetings and social gatherings, as well as providing activities and entertainment for youth such as a 4-H club, evening basketball program, fiddle lessons, cooking classes, and so much more.
The Swan River Friendship Centre changed its name to the Elbert Chartrand Friendship Centre at the Annual General Assembly (AGA) held in 2013. This was done to recognize one of the major contributors to the Friendship Centre, which is likely an understatement.
“Chartrand worked for the centre since 1980 and was the executive director from 1987 until his death (in 2012),” said Gray, when he acted as elected chair during that year’s AGA.
“He was deeply committed to both the friendship centre movement and the Swan River Friendship Centre where he reflected the best values and principles of the movement and was a model that inspired others to work by those same principles.”
In addition to the facility and organization being renamed the Elbert Chartrand Friendship Centre, but First Street South on the back side of the ECFC was also renamed Elbert Chartrand Way. Fleming added that this street was the street where Chartrand would frequently travel on his way from his home to the facility that would eventually be renamed in his honour.
“There was a lot of discussion on the impact that he had in the Swan River Friendship Centre and the movement that it had in bringing the Indigenous community together with the non-Indigenous community, and the amount of people that he helped along the way,” said Fleming. “They thought that it was only fitting to name the Friendship Centre after him.”
More recently, Gray reflected on the relationship that he had with Chartrand, and the kind of person he was.
“He was a person with whom I became close enough that we often could just sit and observe the world quietly and comment lightly,” he said. “I was given the honour of delivering a eulogy at his funeral.
“From a situation that has delivered to me many, many benefits, that friendship was probably the pinnacle of what I have received.”
Gray himself has been involved with the ECFC for multiple decades, first getting involved in the mid-1970s, becoming more actively involved in 1980, and becoming an executive director in 1984. He has remained involved since, later becoming named a lifetime member in the early 1990s.
“The Friendship Centre in Swan River represents the very best of this community,” said Gray. “It has been, for many years, an extremely high achieving centre.
“It has integrated the community in ways that those in 1980 would never have believed possible for this community. It provides services and opportunities – especially for Indigenous people – but also for others, that simply would not exist without it.”
Fleming noted that one misconception is that the ECFC is operated by or a part of the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF).
“The ECFC is its own entity,” he said, clarifying that MMF is but one of the many partners that the ECFC works with on a regular basis, including Swan River Adult Education, the Swan Valley School Division, the Swan Valley Farmers’ Market, Prairie Mountain Health, and the local tennis association.
“They do work with us to deliver some excellent programming, and they’ve been an unbelievable partner. And, we’re always looking for that type of partnership.”
Ultimately – throughout the decades of changes that the ECFC has experienced, through various different locations and buildings and different programs and activities that have been offered – the goal remains the same as it always has, and that was to bring people together to form a community, embracing and celebrating all races and cultures in a welcoming environment.
Fleming concluded in part by acknowledging the staff that operate the facility that help make the ECFC what it is on a day-to-day basis.
“They are caring staff that have the same vision as the board, which is to help make the community a better place,” he said.

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Jeremy Bergen
REPORTER
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