The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) Program

The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) Program: Aboriginal Diversity and Sustainable Holistic Urban Wellness in Vancouver, BC


Jeffrey J. Schiffer, PhD Candidate

Special Projects Officer, Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society

11 April 2012


I. Acknowledgements

The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) program has been developed through a partnership between Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS), the UBC Institute for Aboriginal Health (IAH), and Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS).  The program targets Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth at risk (some of whom are in foster care) in Vancouver, BC, and seeks to empower these youth through strength-based programming grounded in both evidence-based research and the wisdom and lived experience of Aboriginal elders and knowledge keepers.  The term “Aboriginal” refers to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people of Canada.  The program received seed funding through the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at Earth Institute, Columbia University, which enabled our team to secure 24 months of additional funding (through to December of 2013) from the Province of British Columbia’s Community Action Initiative (CAI).


The design and development of the CRUW program was guided by a consultation process with a circle of Aboriginal elders, including: Dr. Lee Brown, director of the UBC Institute for Aboriginal Health; Phil Lane Jr., Director of the Four Worlds International Institute; Larry Grant, UBC First Nations languages program; Rose Point, Musqueam elder; and Thelma Stogan, Musqueam elder.  CRUW also receives in-kind contributions from VACFSS, IAH and PCRS.  The program has been supported by graduate students at the University of British Columbia, both on a course credit and volunteer basis, and relies on volunteers from VACFSS and elsewhere for supervision and support during program sessions.  As program lead, it is an honour to acknowledge the diverse range of people and institutions that have made this program possible.


Musqueam Elder Rose Point guiding CRUW youth on an ethnobotanical tour in the forests surrounding the UBC farm

II. The CRUW Program

The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) program provides youth ages 12-15 with the opportunity to engage in 16 sessions in the IAH’s Teaching and Research Garden at the UBC farm.  Sessions occur every second Saturday from late March to late October, annually.  Across this eight-month timespan, each cohort of CRUW youth witnesses and engages with the garden throughout its entire annual cycle.  CRUW youth manage plots inside the garden, as well as engaging in a variety of activities with program elders and personnel around a youth driven curriculum addressing the four program objectives: (1) historical knowledge; (2) Holistic Wellness (with an emphasis on healthy life transitions and the prevention/reduction of substance misuse); (3) Emotional and Cultural Competence (with an emphasis on reducing discrimination and promoting cross-cultural conflict resolution and respect among diverse youth); and (4) mentorship (with an emphasis on youth empowerment and peer support towards the development of skills for collaboration and conflict resolution).


2012 CRUW youth and volunteers in the greenhouse learning the traditional Aboriginal teachings around Tobacco. Please note that due to confidentiality we can not provide images of CRUW youth’s faces

Over the course of the 2012 program year, CRUW youth will have the opportunity to participate in activities emphasizing the following: Oral History, Storytelling & Dance; Ethnobotanical Forest Walks; Indigenous Food Sovereignty and Science; Ceremony (smudge teachings; blessing the land; tobacco teachings; rites of passage); Garden Ecology; Composting and Waste; Cooking and Nutrition; Race, Gender, Sexuality and Discrimination; Medicine Making; Tea Making; Smoking Salmon; Canning; Puberty Rites and Healthy Life Transitions.




Dr. Lee Brown (right), IAH Director, and CRUW youth (left) planting Hopi Tobacco seeds in the greenhouse.

III. Aboriginal Diversity in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

The Pacific Northwest Coast, stretching more than 2000 miles from what is today Northern California to Alaska on a narrow strip of land between the Coastal Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world with more than 80 indigenous languages (Waldman 2009).The Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council (MVAEC) estimates that there are 40,000 Aboriginals residing in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), from more than 100 Aboriginal communities across Canada- representing a huge diversity of Aboriginal cultures.


Within a broader context, Canada’s Aboriginal peoples comprise the nation’s youngest and fastest growing population:


  • Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population of Canada grew by 45% (compared with 8% for the non-Aboriginal population), and 48% of Aboriginal people in Canada are less than 25 years old (compared to 31% of non-Aboriginals).


  • Between 2001 and 2026, the population of Aboriginals between 15 and 29 is projected to grow by 37% compared with 6% for the general Canadian population.


  • ?Close to 70% of Aboriginals in Canada now live off reserve, and 55-60% of Aboriginals live in urban areas.


The CRUW program seeks to bring together some of Vancouver’s most marginalized Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to discuss the diversity of the city, celebrate our diversity, and engage in culturally relevant land-based practices promoting holistic and sustainable urban wellness.


The program’s focus on youth in foster care is particularly timely.  There are 9,000 children in foster care in British Columbia at present, some 5,000 of which are Aboriginal. While Aboriginals make up some 6% of Canada‘s population, they represent an estimated 40% of children living in foster care.The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal children in foster care continue to be placed in non-Aboriginal homes, without (or with limited) access to their ancestral communities or relevant cultural practices.  Despite the challenges this presents, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada supplies 22 percent less funding per child to the Aboriginal branch of foster care than the average province provides for non-Aboriginal youth.Aboriginal children in foster care not only continue to receive less funding, but experience more instances of abuse and neglect, and are at significantly higher risk of substance abuse, mental ill-health, suicide and incarceration than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.  Through inclusion of non-Aboriginal youth, CRUW seeks to build meaningful connections towards the promotion of emotional and cultural competence among Vancouver’s diverse population of at-risk youth.


A CRUW youth participant sporting a VACFSS shirt.

IV. Culturally Relevant Land-Based Practice as a Pathway to Holistic and Sustainable Urban Wellness

Interaction with gardens and natural spaces offers a variety of mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and social benefits, ranging from stress reduction, quicker healing, and mitigation of Attention Deficit Disorder in children to decreasing crime and air pollution.  Frances Kuo, at the University of Illinois, conducted a study of 28 identical high-rise public housing projects.  She found a significant difference between those in the projects living near green spaces and those who did not.  Among the former, these differences included:


  1. A stronger sense of community
  2. Better coping with everyday stress and hardship
  3. Less aggression and violence
  4. Better performance on tests of concentration
  5. Management of problems more effectively


A series of studies by researchers over the past decade has revealed that human interaction with green space (what we discuss here as land-based practice) significantly impacts the following: Stress & violence reduction; Improved concentration; Enhanced Health; More rapid healing; Improved environmental conditions; Crime reduction; Increased workplace productivity; Safer driving; Economic stimulation; Positive effects on children.


Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2005) popularized the “No Child Left Inside” movement.  Louv’s book speaks to the countless benefits natural spaces have on child development. One national study of 450 children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder determined that exposure to natural environments alleviated symptoms of the condition.  Another study revealed that views of trees from the home improves self-discipline among inner city girls, including enhanced concentration, inhibition of impulsive behavior, and delay of gratification. After creative play in verdant settings, children overall demonstrate increased ability to concentrate, complete tasks, and follow directions.


Aboriginal youth in Vancouver overwhelmingly speak English as their first language, come to know these territories only as the City of Vancouver, and engage predominantly in mainstream practices established my dominant Canadian culture (schooling; sports; the nuclear family; church; Christian holidays/ritual, etc).  The benefits of green space within this context cannot address the inter-generational trauma, discrimination, and shame about being Aboriginal that has been characteristic of Aboriginal populations for generations because they are not culturally relevant.


Research by Dr. Lee Brown, Director of UBC’s Institute for Aboriginal Health, suggests that culturally relevant practice in IAH’s Teaching and Research Garden builds both Emotional and Cultural Competence in Aboriginal Youth.  These competencies nurture pride in Aboriginal ancestry through connection to the ancestors- addressing inter-generational trauma, and other impacts of colonization.



Kiri Chanwai, IAH Research Manager with a palm full of Hopi Tobacco seeds

Research continues to demonstrate that the teenage years are critical for cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual development (The Nature of Things, The Teenage Brain).Culturally relevant land-based practice during these formative years provides youth with ancestral knowledge in contemporary ways, fostering innovation that honours our diversity rather than privileging postcolonial forms of language, epistemology, practice and relationship.

To date, the first cohort of CRUW has participated in 2 sessions.  Our team looks forward to providing additional information on our findings shortly.


V. Citations and Resources

Please address any inquiries regarding CRUW to Jeff Schiffer, VACFSS Special Projects Officer, at

For more information about this project, download Human_Benefits




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  • Shirley Turcotte says:

    I am so grateful to Elder Rose Point and Dr. Lee Brown for sharing their wisdom and hearts and land with these incredible children. It is projects like this that bring hope to the future…

    Thank you Jeffrey Schiffer for helping to bring this program forward. I only hope that it will be sustainable and not just be a two year program.. This program needs legs to grow and be there always.

  • Nadia says:

    This reminded me of the Japanese tradition of forest bathing, there scientific reasons to connect with green space “Research about the Japanese practice of forest bathing shows that time spent in nature lowers stress levels – and could even help fight cancer.”:

    Great work Jeff, I am happy you have facilitated this program for Aboriginal youth. Such meaningful work.

  • Melissa Reburiano says:

    It’s promising that CRUW’s program design relies on a variety of inputs, drawing on history, research, and lived experience. CRUW’s approach toward the often nebulous aim of “empowerment” appears solidly rooted in popular education, covering both practical and conceptual skills that serve to guide participants’ view of self and society. The underlying hope is for these marginalized youth to use these program-supported skills to foster a sustainable justice.
    I look forward to future blog posts addressing the specific nature of CRUW’s implementation strategies, and what impact paradigm informs such strategy. And of course, it will be interesting to read about program impact, both short-term and long-term.

  • Bridget McElroy says:

    This project sounds really interesting and tailored well to the needs of the youth involved. I am very curious about the mentorship program. Will students have adult/peer mentors or will they participate mostly in conflict resolution trainings? Does this program compliment formal education training? Or is it a program external to school? I am very curious about how the project identified their youth. Did they apply or were they referred?
    I would love to hear more about the youth’s individual motivations for participating in the program. I wonder if they see the importance of learning about their heritage or if they see it as an educational opportunity that will help them develop interpersonal skills to succeed. Very interesting. I look forward to hearing more about it!

  • Dylan Gordon says:

    What a great project! Land and food-based practice is such an effective way of nurturing wellness and resilience in all sorts of socioeconomic and cultural contexts. It’s wonderful to see you’ve put in the work to not only create a well-thought and comprehensive program but also implement it. In my own studies of “wild food” in Canada today, I have heard a lot of talk about using similar ideas to develop economic, social and environmental wellness in Aboriginal communities in the North. But there’s not a lot of action on it. I’m sure this is going to be an excellent experience for all the participants, and also a very important resource for people looking to develop similar programs in the future—a pressing and promising task. Best wishes!

  • Shana S. R. Colburn says:

    This sounds like an amazing collaborative effort – on several levels. I look forward to reading more as the project progresses.

  • christopher says:

    Thoughtful interview with Jeff talking about this project

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