Barb Ward-Burkitt has just celebrated her golden anniversary with over 50 years in the Friendship Centre movement.
She’s currently the executive director of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre, but got her start with the Quesnel Friendship Centre (Tillicum Society).
“Fifty years with the Friendship Centre movement is an amazing accomplishment,” said Adam Vickers, president of the PGNFC’s board of directors. “As a result, Barb’s influence will be felt for generations to come and she will be remembered as one of the great Indigenous leaders of reconciliation in Canada."
She started in 1972, when she attended the Quesnel Friendship Centre as a volunteer to help out her mother Martha Ward and aunt Joyce Horning.
They urged her to come as it would help her get closer in touch with her Indigenous roots.
“My mom and auntie were preparing the Remembrance Day luncheon and my mom called me asking me to come help them, they needed potatoes peeled and vegetables chopped,” said Ward-Burkett.
She explained she didn’t have a babysitter for Leah, her one-and-a-half year old daughter, however her mother and aunt said that since there was a whole room full of elders, it would be fine to just pack up her dolls and bring her on down.
“I remember setting her up with her toys and snacks and watched over her like a hawk, but pretty soon realized those elders were more than happy to take care of her. That was the start of working in the Friendship Centre movement. I really felt I’d found my place.”
It wasn’t long before her motivation to help her own people and uplift the organization led to a position on the board of directors of the Quesnel Friendship Center, but before long she had to step down when she was hired as an employee.
She then decided to move to Prince George in the early 1990s for personal reasons, but said she was also drawn to the city because it also had a Friendship Centre.
It is a demographic fact that 80 per cent of Canada’s Indigenous population lives in an urban setting, so Friendship Centres are a pivotal service point and a home away from home for Indigenous peoples.
B.C.’s northern capital is home to thousands of Indigenous people from nations across the region and the country. It makes PGNFC a critical magnet for Indigenous peoples who find themselves living on the Lheidli T'enneh First Nations Territory.
In 1992, Ward-Burkett was hired to work for Project Refocus, an adult career preparation program at the PGNFC.
She had applied for an advertised opening for a different position, but her application was spotted by the education and employment department’s manager, Donagh MacArtain, who snapped her up for his team instead, because she had a background in education in Quesnel.
It became another perfect match between Ward-Burkitt and the Friendship Centre movement and she climbed steadily through positions at the PGNFC.
“Barb is now the torch bearer in leading the organization in service to the community and she has brought healing and increased the voice and power of women in the community,” said MacArtain. “She has brought gifts of healing and nurturing and at the same time has increased and improved the services for the community.”
In 2004, when Dan George moved on from the executive director position, Ward Burkitt was named as his replacement and she has held the position ever since.
Ward-Burkitt is a member of the Fort McKay Cree First Nation and she carried the Indigenous name Wahiyow Cawapata Scoo.
She holds a master’s degree in education and as a volunteer has been the president of the Prince George Nechako Aboriginal Employment and Training Association and the Prince George Metis Housing Society.
Her long list of accomplishments also includes being a field mentor for Simon Fraser University faculty and sitting on the board of governors for UNBC and chairing the Minister’s Advisory council on Indigenous Women in B.C.
She was also named to the Order of British Columbia in 2010.
“As executive director of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre, the largest of the 120 Friendship Centres in Canada, Mrs. Ward-Burkitt acts as a strong advocate for elders, children and families, ensuring services offered in her community focus on a holistic approach in a culturally appropriate atmosphere,” said the province’s Lieutenant Governor of the day, Steven Point.
“I have fond memories of the Friendship Centre movement, because it all started me on my path to healing and gaining my capacity and my confidence,” said Ward-Burkitt. “I have that inherent desire to help people. I grew up not in a cultural way and connecting into the Friendship Centre was a way to figure out who I was as an Indigenous person. It covered all the bases, ticks all the boxes, if you will. I can formalize my language around that now, but at the time it was just a place where I felt safe and I needed to be, but I couldn’t speak as to why at the time. I just knew it was the place for me, and it opened the doors to what the possibilities could be fore me.”
Ward-Burkitt said she strives to ensure the Friendship Centre in Prince George and those like it across Canada continue to do that for others.