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Looking through a social justice lens

Ensuring equal access and opportunities for all community members

By Erica Osburn

The Food Bank. Emergency shelters. The Crisis Line. Three services essential to the social support network in any community. In times of crisis they may be the difference between suffering alone and finding the support to go on.

But as important as emergency services are, Peter Ackhurst, of the Community Foundation of Whistler, recognizes there are less critical situations where people also need support.

“There are many people in Whistler and Pemberton who are in need, but not in crisis,” he says. “These people are trying to make ends meet, and trying to remain in Whistler, but do need assistance. Unfortunately, most social services require a person to be in dire circumstances in order to access them.”

What Ackhurst is talking about is known generally as social justice.

“Social justice means that society should provide equal opportunity for all its members,” says Kerry Chalmers, executive director of the CFOW. “Every individual should have equal access to the benefits of a society, regardless of race, age, gender or economic status.”

Chalmers is using the concept of social justice to steer the CFOW’s efforts. Social justice is a guiding principle behind the initiatives of nearly all Community Foundations across Canada, which began exploring the role of foundations in promoting social justice in the fall of 2001.

Chalmers likes to illustrate the social justice approach with a story of a town where babies are seen floating down the river every day, each one rescued by citizens swimming into the river. “Social justice is going up river and finding out who is putting the babies in the river and why — getting to the root of the problem.

“A real life example,” she continues, “is the food bank versus Whistler’s Community Greenhouse Project (a Whistler Community Services Society initiative, now in its fourth season, which enables Whistlerites without space or adequate sunlight to grow their own food).” Both programs feed people, but “the Greenhouse Project gives people the skills they need to help themselves in the long term.”

Chalmers adds that the primary role of the CFOW is to facilitate dialogue, and fund social programs that are in sync with CFOW values. She emphasizes that organizations, not individuals, are the recipients of funding. In turn, non-profits such as the WCSS work with individuals on a one-on-one basis.

Other groups benefiting from CFOW grants in the last two years include the Rotary Club of Whistler, Signal Hill Elementary School, The Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation, the Whistler Writer’s Group, and the Mount Currie Community School.

To get dialogue flowing on social justice issues in the corridor, the CFOW held community forums in Whistler and Pemberton. Christine Buttkus, CFOW volunteer and former executive director, strove to make the forums as representative as possible.

“We started the process by contacting people we thought had an interest in social justice work and asked them to provide input (to a social justice questionnaire). As they responded, they also identified additional people that they thought would be interested. As we reviewed the issues addressed through the submissions, we identified content gaps and tried to connect with people who might be able to provide more information,” she says. “We did advertise the event as well, so additional participants self-identified.”

Two community forums were held, in November 2006 and January 2007, and involved more than 20 individuals from Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, Mount Currie and D’Arcy. Participants included youth, seniors and members of First Nations communities in the corridor. Two group facilitators from Vancouver and Montreal were also brought in to lead the forums, representing the Community Foundations of Canada.

While many issues were discussed, poverty, transportation, and cultural awareness were identified in the forums as the most important social justice concerns affecting living conditions in the corridor. Armed with this information, the CFOW knew where it was headed with its fundraising initiatives, and had a framework to facilitate change. “We provided a vehicle for discussion. The forums have given us a good starting place,” says Buttkus.

Ackhurst, a forum participant and CFOW Board member, whose late wife, Jill, was extremely active in Whistler fundraising and volunteer work, acknowledges that affordability is not an issue that is adequately addressed in Whistler.

“Whistler is a one-horse town that caters to wealthy tourists,” he says. “If I am a resident of Whistler, where do I go to purchase basic items at an affordable price? There is a prevalent attitude here in Whistler of ‘tough luck’ if you can’t afford living here. Shopping for necessities is expensive. There is no place to socialize for free.”

Greg McDonnell, Supervisor for the WCSS’s Community Youth Outreach program, echoes that sentiment.

“Whistler has an almost natural social justice system in place — those who are here can afford to be. If you can’t afford to be in Whistler, or can’t find a job, or are under some other social/political/economic pressure then you are going to leave. So a strictly wealthy community of ‘haves’ remain here, and the have-nots go elsewhere, and as a result, there might be a perception that programs to tackle socio-economic problems aren’t needed,” McDonnell says.

“With the social justice lens on, we can look critically at ourselves and see what forces we are formally (knowingly) or informally (unknowingly) contributing to that prevent people from equal access to a just life in Whistler.”

Housing is an important issue, a part of the affordability equation, that McDonnell feels relates to social justice.

“We have some bad landlords in Whistler. We obviously have a lot of good ones too. But some of these people demand payment up to 12 months in advance, don’t give damage deposits back, and are taking advantage of seasonal workers. People from overseas, many with a language barrier, have little capacity to follow through with things like the landlord-tenant resolution process, especially if they are from out of the country. So is this a social justice issue that the community needs to deal with?”

On the subject of transportation, McDonnell believes that the corridor, on the whole, is overly car-dependent.

“Social justice is not being met in Pemberton in the fact that there is no or bad public transit. You need access to a car to get around. The poor can’t get to hospitals. Mothers can’t attend parent-tot drop-ins easily.”

Transportation is also a key issue for jobs.

“Most jobs are in Whistler and getting to Whistler is not easy without a car, adds McDonnell. “We have bus service but it is not as frequent or convenient for most people who need it.”

Addressing cultural awareness, McDonnell has some strong opinions. “Up until two months ago, the Whistler Museum’s website had no mention of the Lil’Wat or Squamish First Nations. That is brutal. I am sure it wasn’t deliberate, but it is this long-standing ignorance that is not going to get our communities together to engage in dialogue,” he says. “We need to shift judgment for curiosity.”

A number of non-profits partner with the CFOW in dealing with social issues in Whistler and Pemberton, with the premier social service delivery group being the Whistler Community Services Society. While grants from CFOW only account for .25 per cent of WCSS’s total budget, Janet McDonald, WCSS Executive Director, acknowledges that WCSS has only just begun to apply to the CFOW for grants in the last couple of years. So where does most of WCSS’s funding come from?

“Seventy-five per cent comes from the Re-Use-It Centre,” McDonald says with pride. “We get a lot of volume flowing in and out of that place. We’re really busy.”

McDonnell appreciates the sustainability factor of the Re-Use-It Centre as the WCSS’s chief source of funding. “It’s environmentally friendly, a huge cross section of the community uses the place, and it is a creative way to fundraise,” he says.

Not only does WCSS run Whistler’s Food Bank, Interim Housing, Emergency Financial Assistance, and other acute needs programs, it is very supportive of social justice programs for lower income and at-risk members of the community. The organization runs a wide variety of programs in Whistler and Pemberton that impact a large number of community members of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds. Such programs include Youth Outreach, Whistler Welcome Week (for seasonal workers arriving in the fall), the Whistler Employment Resource Centre, the Community Greenhouse Project, Parent-Infant Drop-In, the Whistler Survival Guide brochure, and SNOW (Support Network of Whistler), among many more.

“We want to enable at-risk people to stand on their own two feet in the long term,” says McDonald of the SNOW program.

The Food Buying Club and SNOW, which is aimed at frequent users of the food bank, provides mainly single-parent families with financial difficulties access to a food-at-cost program through Whistler’s Grocery Store. Participants are also required to attend weekly workshops on a range of topics, including budgeting, healthy meal preparation on a shoestring, and resume and career planning.

The CFOW contributed $1,000 to this program in 2006 through the Jill Ackhurst Community Action Fund. Chalmers, an advocate of the program says: “our goal is to direct our CFOW funding in a way that supports social justice initiatives such as this one, which gets to the root of a problem and empowers people.”

Last year, SNOW members decided stress management was an issue they wanted some help with, and yoga classes were suggested.

“We held some sessions and they loved it,” says Chalmers. “If we can empower people to deal with their difficulties in creative ways, we want to support that if we can. This is not a top down group.”

CFOW has directed funding to six projects in 2007 that uphold social justice principles. Grants were awarded to the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program’s Adaptive Alpine Race Development Program, which supports disabled youth in “club level” ski race training and competition; a unique math teacher-training program at Mount Currie Community school; the Rotary Club of Whistler, to provide educational software and playground equipment for Head of the Lakes School at Skatin Nation; The Kelty Patrick Dennehy Foundation to implement a depression awareness and screening program for Whistler Secondary School; Whistler Writer’s Group to support the First Nations Writer-in-Residence Program; and finally, Project Heartsong at Signal Hill Elementary School in Pemberton.

The Project Heartsong program, now in its second year, brings in elders Gerald Gabriel and Martin Thevarge, from Mount Currie and D’Arcy to teach all students in the school traditional hand drumming, singing and dancing. Students have learned to make their own drums and there is now a class set for the children to use.

The project, which is taught within the school’s music program, has been very successful, according to Signal Hill teacher Doris Zurcher.

“First Nations students are being validated for who they are. There is a big difference between being able to express your culture, and being validated for it.”

The goal of the project has been greater cultural awareness between First Nations students, who come from Mount Currie, D’Arcy and the Southern Stl’atl’imx Nations near Baptiste Smith, and other cultural groups. Drumming is now being used to start school assemblies.

“When the drumming begins, the Native children really brighten up,” continues Zurcher. “This is what some of them hear in their own homes.”

Dave Walden, Chair of the Board of School Trustees for the Howe Sound School District, is encouraged by the initiatives being made at Signal Hill to foster cross-cultural awareness.

“Twenty years ago, this would not have happened on such a large scale,” he says. “Parents would have been much more reluctant to allow their children to participate in this kind of program. Now at PAC meetings, parents are open to it and encourage it.

“If we want to have peace in our world, we have to start by understanding one another,” he says. “I have always believed that change needs to start in the schools. It isn’t going to solve all our problems but it is a step forward.”

Chalmers recognizes that much needs to be done. “We have only been focused on social justice as our guiding principle for the last 18 months or so. We are at the beginning stages, and the forums were a good starting point. We got action items out of the discussions.”

“Poverty and cultural awareness are long term issues and we need to develop long term strategies,” continues Buttkus. “Social justice is a strategic focus we are taking. The more people who know what the term means, the better. A lot of people don’t think we have social issues here in Whistler. We do.”



How CFOW differs from other charities

The CFOW differs from, but is complementary to, other local charities. It acts as a vehicle by providing financial support to others. And most importantly, the CFOW creates and manages permanent endowment funds that are held in perpetuity, from which only the investment income is distributed. While individual gifts may be used to establish a separate fund, the funds are pooled with all other gifts into a common, professionally managed portfolio in order to maximize potential income and minimize administrative expenses.

The CFOW’s vision is “To provide dedicated philanthropic leadership and resources, in perpetuity, to the Sea to Sky Communities.”