A loud cheer erupted on West Pender Street Monday morning after a 40-foot totem pole was unveiled at the top of a new unique building for aboriginal people.
Lou-ann Neel was among the crowd on the street applauding what was a special day for her and other tenants about to move in to Skwachays Healing Lodge at 31 West Pender St. “This is incredible,” said Neel, who is a member of the Kwagiulth First Nation and originally from Alert Bay.
The six-storey building is unlike any other in the province and potentially the country. It has a sweat lodge, a smudge room, a basement workshop for artists and an art gallery, where Neel has one of her decorative button blankets mounted on the wall. “To have everything all in one place is just extraordinary,” said Neel, a struggling artist living on a student loan that has made it difficult for her to find housing since she moved here last fall.
The Vancouver Native Housing Society selected Neel to live in the building. She relocated four times in 10 months, and was “about three weeks away from not having a place” when she was notified of her new home. The $14-million development provides 24 affordable housing apartments—Neel will pay just shy of $500 a month—for aboriginal people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The building also provides 18 “healing lodge apartments” for aboriginal people and their immediate family who need to travel to Vancouver from rural and remote communities for medical services. “You can see it’s not just another building,” said David Eddy, CEO of the Vancouver Native Housing Society. “This will be a place of pride for aboriginal people. Forget [the Gastown] steam clock, tourists will be coming here to look at this totem pole.”
The building is on the site of the former Pender Hotel, one of 24 single-room occupancy hotels the provincial government purchased in Vancouver a few years ago.
Eddy noted the name of the building—Skwachays—was chosen by Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation, who said it reflects the traditional name for the area and refers to a place of transformation.
Neel is enrolled at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, where she is working on a fine arts degree in visual arts, specializing in sculpture. “I know for me, as a student, this is keeping me from heading down a path that I don’t want to head down,” she said, referring to the disproportionate number of aboriginal people who are homeless and dealing with substance abuse problems. “I came here to get an education and I couldn’t have dreamed of this support. It’s an absolute miracle. Together, I think we’ll be able to keep everybody safe and focused.”
Artist Randy Wisla, who was living in a shelter, will be one of Neel’s neighbours. He described himself as a “starving,’ carvin’ kind of guy” and told the crowd as he spoke at the tail end of a press conference that he appreciated his new home. “I feel it in my heart and I just feel so grateful,” he said.