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Target Population: First Nations in Vancouver, especially those who have struggled with addictions and mental health

“Colonization has not been good to our people. Where people have suffered, the ones that have been left out [of the circle]…those are the ones who are most affected by colonization, residential school, foster care. Those are the ones that are in the alleys. They’re not there for no reason, so those are the ones we reach out to.” – Patrick Smith

Background: Culture Saves Lives was founded by Patrick Smith, a Kwaguilth man, whose own experience of colonization, including the ‘60s scoop, inspired him to nearly two decades of Indigenous health and social service work in the Downtown East Side. Patrick was moved to further action by the 2015 release of the Paige report, a publication of the BC representative for children and youth that detailed the system-wide neglect and indifference that tragically led one young Indigenous girl to overdose in Oppenheimer Park two months after aging-out of care. What began with public art installations to “uplift the minds and hearts of our people”, such as a 30 foot Medicine Wheel, a 16-foot feather, and a 60 foot Eagle Staff, soon grew into street-side drumming and ceremonies for Indigenous people with little access to Indigenous teachings and ceremonies.

Description: Culture Saves Lives provides opportunity and space for community members, especially First Nations people who have been oppressed by colonization, such as residential schools and the foster care system, to rediscover and celebrate their roots. It also provides awareness and education to mainstream service providers of the power, beauty, and enduring strength of First Nations traditions and ceremonies. With financial support from First Nations Health Authority and British Columbia Health, Culture Saves Lives works tirelessly to bring culture, traditions, and ceremony to the streets, alleys, and parks of Vancouver, and to reconnect the disconnected to their Indigenous identity and heritage. Elements of Culture Saves Lives include:

  • Freestyle outreach: bringing drums and regalia to street corners, alleys, or wherever its needed.
  • Bringing ceremony to the people who need it most
  • Memorial services for those who have fallen victim to the opioid crisis and to the on-going crisis of colonialism
  • In-house and public art making
  • In partnership with First Nations Health Authority, three-day train-the-trainer harm reduction workshops that teach participants how to talk about and address substance use and accidental poisonings with trainings based on culture, connecting and relationship building
  • Education and awareness of Indigenous culture for mainstream service providers

Wise Practices:

Must be own agents of change: programming for Indigenous communities must be designed and delivered by Indigenous people, using Indigenous approaches that meet the needs of Indigenous communities. Mainstream models or goals are inappropriate and do not meet the needs of community.

Flexible, adaptable programming: funding and programming must be flexible enough to adapt to emerging needs.

Rooted in loving kindness: Must meet people where they are at, with loving kindness and non-judgement. It is about building relationships with people, not behaviours.


The biggest challenges to bringing culture and ceremony to the streets are:

  • the stigma and the judgement that is directed at those who use substances, in both mainstream and Indigenous communities. This creates unsafe spaces and services for Indigenous community members who use substances and leads to further isolation and unsafe substance using practices.
  • the perceived tension in Indigenous communities between abstinence and harm reduction approaches. This creates barriers for organizations and individuals who make culture and ceremony available to those who use substances.

“Our original teachers, earth, air, sun, water – they give life to each and every one of us – they don’t judge, they don’t say you’re clean and you’re not. So who am I to say, ‘oh you can smudge but you can’t’?” – Patrick Smith

Evidence of Success:

  • The impact of Culture Saves Lives is most evident in the faces of those who continue to show up at Culture Saves Lives events and meeting places; in the testimonials from individuals who have said that Culture Saves Lives has literally saved their life or been there for them in a time of need; in their rapidly expanding staff numbers; and in the relationships that have been built over the years. Patrick and the Culture Saves Lives staff are building bridges to the future by educating mainstream service providers about Indigenous culture and healing practices and connecting the disconnected to their birthright.

For More Information:

Patrick Smith, Executive Director, culture@mvaec.ca

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