Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness on the West Coast

By David Overall, CRUW Research Coordinator

Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS)

In the City of Vancouver, British Columbia

Canada’s Aboriginal peoples comprise the nation’s youngest and fastest growing  population. In Canada, the term “Aboriginal” denotes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada. 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 (Source 9). This trend of rapid growth is accompanied by a move towards urbanization.  In Canada, today, close to 70% of Aboriginals live off-reserve, and 55-60% of Aboriginals live in urban areas (Source 8). The City of Vancouver, for example, is home to Aboriginal people for more than 100 communities across the country.

While Aboriginals comprise roughly 6% of the Canadian population, 40% of infants, children and youth involved in the child welfare system are Aboriginal. The majority of these youth live in non-Aboriginal homes, with limited access to culturally relevant practice for wellness.

The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) program was developed in partnership between Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society (VACFSS), the Institute for Aboriginal Health (IAH) at the University of British Columbia (UBC), and Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS). CRUW is a 16 session program that occurs over 7 months -from late March to late October- annually in IAH’s Teaching and Research Garden at the UBC Farm. The Program was developed in consultation with an Elder’s Advisory Circle, including members of Musqueam Nation, and is grounded in 4 objectives:

1.  Ancestral Aboriginal knowledge;

2. Holistic and Sustainable Urban Wellness (emphasizing healthy life transitions);

3. Emotional and Cultural Competence (with an emphasis on honour our diversity);

4. Mentorship (across many axis: elder-youth, staff-youth, youth-youth)

The Culturally Relevant Urban Wellness (CRUW) program includes both Aboriginal youth (75% of participants) from VACFSS and non-Aboriginal youth (25% of participants) through PCRS. The program creates a space for cultural reflection and exchange, promoting a philosophy of food as medicine, and emotional and cultural competence through gardening and other land based practices for wellness. Youth participants design and plant their own gardens, learn about the nutritional content and medicinal benefits of the plants they grow, harvest their gardens, and learn about food preservation, composting, and the ecology of gardens.

As the 2012 CRUW program year is coming to an end, we are now beginning our year-end consultation process.  This will involve a reflective process of engagement with elders, youth and staff exploring our major challenges and successes, and refining the program after our inaugural year.   During the inter-program period, from late October 2012 to late March 2013, the CRUW team will produce a program manual, a Sustainability Plan, and a Knowledge Dissemination Plan.


I. Successes and Highlights

The program has proven immensely popular with the youth, and over the 16 sessions they have developed a clear network of strong friendships. Out of an original group of 26 youth, 23 remain at the end of the program, a testament to their enthusiasm and commitment. Staff and volunteers have noticed the emergence of a distinct culture of peer leadership, with many of the youth expressing a desire to return to the program in 2013 in a mentorship role.

The UBC Farm has proved an excellent environment for learning, and over time the youth have become very attached to their plots in the Institute for Aboriginal Health’s Teaching and Research Garden. Interactions in the garden have provided a context for the growing pride and knowledge-base displayed by the youth. This was especially evident on Family Day, with many of the participants taking the lead in guiding people around their rows and sharing what they have learned. CRUW has also had a positive impact on the UBC Farm itself, illustrating the value of holistic learning going on at this location.

The flexibility of the program has proved a major asset in keeping the youth interested and eager to contribute. The sessions covered a broad array of activities that engaged different learning styles in different ways, allowing everyone a chance to become involved. Many of the sessions resulted in physical goods – such as dried tea or smoked salmon – that the youth were then able to take home and share with family and friends.

There has also been marked progress in the normalization of aboriginal practice. The elders involved in the program have noted a clear improvement in the attitude of the youth towards ceremonies like smudging or drum songs, with many of them shifting from observation to active participation. It has been encouraging to see progress towards CRUW’s goals of breaking down stereotypes and reducing discrimination.












II.  Challenges

In its opening year CRUW has many accomplishments to be proud of, but there remain areas in need of refinement. In particular, establishing clearly defined responsibilities for CRUW staff is a major objective for 2013. Shortfalls in time and personnel were addressed through the commitment of present CRUW staff, often working on their own time, but this is not a sustainable approach in the long-term. Formalizing roles such as a dedicated Garden Coordinator will be very helpful in managing workload and ensuring that there is consistent support offered to youth across the whole range of activity sessions.

Additionally, creating a system to better document and share the personal journeys of the youth involved in the program is a priority. CRUW is investigating methods of sharing photography, written work and other media while respecting the confidentiality of youth in care. Other goals include building stronger bridges between CRUW and the families of youth involved in the program, and improving avenues by which youth can debrief and reflect on their experiences.

III.  2013 & Beyond

The coming year will be an important one for CRUW.  We will apply the lessons learned in this inaugural session to formalize the curriculum and begin the transition to a freestanding and permanent program.  We are exploring partnerships with like-minded groups in the Vancouver area to facilitate knowledge transfer and offer even more opportunities for our youth.  Grants received from AC4 and CAI have been vital to the success of CRUW in its first year, and the staff and volunteers would like to offer their sincere thanks for the generous support.




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