THUNDER BAY – The Thunder Bay Indian Youth Friendship Centre will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014. Currently led by Bernice Dubec an experienced and dedicated executive director with an over-abundance of patience, the celebrations will not only commemorate the beginnings of the Centre but, as well, it will honour Xavier “Mitch” Michon who created the Centre, was its first executive director and, in its wake, a national movement that has grown to become one of the more important Aboriginal institutions in Canada.
Mobilized by Mitch, a number of young Aboriginal teenagers, including my partner Beverly Sabourin and the current executive director, comprised the Friendship Centre’s first youth group becoming its most effective ambassadors to the broader community.
This engagement with the Centre coupled with Mitch’s leadership and mentoring were important and formative parts of Beverly’s personal and professional life. That all of those young people went on to become compelling advocates and assume prominent positions in organizations that promoted Aboriginal rights is no accident.
He was a leader who inspired.
As the district director in Northwestern Ontario for the Secretary of State, the federal department responsible for funding the Friendship Centre Program at that time, I had the privilege of working closely with Xavier Michon in both developing and expanding the Centre’s reach and influence. I knew him as a dedicated professional and, eventually, as a friend. I still remember him as one of the strongest advocates for the needs and rights of urban Aboriginal people that I have ever encountered.
Mitch was one of the founding members of the Friendship Centre movement, seminal in establishing both the National Association of Friendship Centres (who refer to him with honour as the Grandfather of the movement), and the Ontario Federation of Friendship Centres. Ahead of his time, he realized and acted upon his belief that building bridges between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples would lead to greater mutual understanding and respect. Perhaps his most important and lasting contribution was to the Aboriginal people of northwestern Ontario and to the community of Thunder Bay where he became a barrier-breaker and bridge-builder par excellence, while relentlessly promoting a fuller participation of Aboriginal people in the mainstream of community life. His contribution to the City of Thunder Bay and to its social evolution has always been held in esteem and high regard. While he left us far too soon in life, he will always be remembered by those whose lives he touched and for his remarkable contribution to the concepts and practices of fairness and equity.
From the early days of the Thunder Bay Indian Youth Friendship Centre and its major preoccupation with providing support to students and their families travelling into Thunder Bay from rural and remote areas to the myriad number of social programs now offered to adolescents, students, families and elders, the movement has blossomed into one of the most important social supports available to Aboriginal people in an urban environment.
It should surprise no one that the Friendship Centre and its programs in its current location are bursting at the seems. What has surprised me almost beyond belief is that there are still blinkered and narrow-minded NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard types) in Thunder Bay who do not want the Friendship Centre relocated in their neighbourhood. So much for friendship. So much for neighbourliness!
Earlier this year, Beverly and I decided to spend part of our winter in the American southwest. By “coincidence” and totally unbeknownst to us, our Park Model home happened to be located on the same street in the little Arizona town of Casa Grande as Joyce Fikis (nee Michon), Mitch’s daughter. You can imagine our astonishment in coming across Joyce and her husband some 3,500 kilometers from home! Beverly began to share her many memories of Mitch after which, in an act of extreme generosity, Joyce gifted us with Mitch’s old reclining chair which now graces our unit and is an ever-present reminder of a great man and our happy memories of being associated with him.
Peter Globensky is a former senior policy advisor on Aboriginal Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister and recently retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. He invites comments on his columns at email@example.com