By Michael Potestio
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Society (KAFS) has seen a substantial surge in donations since the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had discovered the remains of 215 children who were students of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The non-profit has been trying to raise funds for a new six-storey building, with living space, since last November, but accumulated only a couple of thousand dollars through a GoFundMe campaign prior to Tk’emlups’ May 27 announcement.
Donations have spiked in the days since, with more than $95,000 raised as of Tuesday.
“It’s unbelievable, to say the least,” KAFS executive director Vicki Michaud said of the meteoric rise in donations.
The news from Tk’emlups led Rick Gibson, founder of Axis Family Resources, to the KAFS campaign as he wanted to do more to show his support, something in addition to symbolic gestures of placing a teddy bear on a porch or wearing an orange shirt.
On Tuesday, Gibson visited KAFS with a $100,000 contribution, $50,000 from the Gibson family and a $50,000 matching contribution from Axis.
“What really got me on the Aboriginal Society is they’re going to put seniors’ housing on top and I thought, `Those are going to be the survivors of residential schools. That’s who those seniors are.’
And I thought, `My god, I want to do something to help them,”’ Gibson said.
He hopes the gift will encourage others to donate and help KAFS meet and even exceed its fundraising goal.
The project is expected to cost millions, with KAFS needing at least $2 million before it can proceed with construction, something Michaud hopes can be completed by 2023.
KAFS is also applying for grants from BC Housing and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
The non-profit society currently operates out of a two-story building on Palm Street off Tranquille Road in North Kamloops, where it has been since 1972.
Michaud said it is in dire need of a new building as the existing infrastructure has aged poorly and is being used beyond the end of its lifecycle.
Michaud said the society’s health centre had to be relocated to Tranquille Road when a pipe burst last year, while another building is only used for storage as it is unsafe to occupy because the roof is starting to collapse.
The society is also unable to adapt and expand programs within the space, something a new building could solve.
“We’re very overcrowded in here,” Michaud said.
She said the current building has minimal spaces for programs, which means sharing rooms and working around schedules, which can be limiting.
KAFS hopes the building will be between 15,000 and 18,000 square feet in size.
Adding on-site affordable social housing units for elders, single mothers and Indigenous families is a priority for the project, Michaud told KTW.
The goal is to add up to 32 units of housing on the top five floors, with the centre on the ground floor, making it a one-stop-shop for clients.
KAFS currently doesn’t have a residential component.
The non-profit society owns the property and plans to tear down the current buildings to construct the new one in its place, which Michaud said is prime location as it is near Overlanders Bridge and on a bus route.
KAFS offers programs to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the areas of health care, outreach programs, child care, counselling, community-focused programs and spaces and food programs.
The $100,000 donation is being made in honour of Joanne McInnes, an Indigenous woman who was an intricate member of Axis when it began in the 1990s.
She was also a foster child of the Sixties Scoop, the large-scale removal of Indigenous children from their homes and subsequent adoption into non-Indigenous families in Canada throughout the 1960s that left many, including McInnis, to grow up knowing little about their cultural identity.
McInnis died in 2000.
Gibson described her as strong and loving.
“I used to always say she had an iron fist, but a velvet glove,” Gibson said. “She was tough, but also very, very gentle.”
Axis provides supportive housing for youth and mentally challenged adults throughout the North and Interior of B.C. It also offers a variety of programs, including addiction and family supports.
Michael Potestio is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Kamloops This Week . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.