Vancouver’s many cultural centres offer a place for different communities to gather and celebrate their own traditions, but also a venue to share those traditions with others.
Place Maillardville, a community cultural centre located in the historic French Quarters in Coquitlam has been a bastion of Francophone culture in the area for more than 100 years. Le Festival du Bois, the largest Francophone festival on the West Coast, is held in nearby Mackin Park in late February and March and adds to the historical memory.
The centre has long been considered the hub and the heart of the French-speaking community. But it is also a popular hangout for a whole mosaic of people. People with different cultural backgrounds participate in colourful, seasonally revolving activities provided to adults, teens, kids and pre-schoolers called Les Petits Français.
Jennifer Smith, longtime manager at Place Maillardville, and newly-appointed executive director Luke Balson explain that the influx into Maillardville has been enormously diverse and that today Place Maillardville is meant to serve as a focal point for current residents, newcomers and immigrants.
“Its mission is to serve the community multiculturally, increasing a sense of belonging in Maillardville. We offer adult and family services and language courses for all ages and abilities, organized at the centre [in the] French roots setting of the town itself,” says Smith.
Balson, whose background is with the City of Coquitlam, working with children and youth, also highlights the wide impact of the centre’s programs.
“We are serving 2800 community members at any given time, making Maillardville a better place to live – Pour mieux vivre à Maillardville,” adds Balson, citing the centre’s motto.
Virginia Martin, an Australian-born speech-language pathologist has been attending evening adult conversational French classes for three years.
“There’s a great benefit, this community centre has given me,” Martin says. “In Western Canada, French is not spoken widely. I deeply value the opportunity to develop my conversational French language skills in my own community of Coquitlam, by attending high-quality weekly adult evening classes with participants who are similarly inspired to understand and speak French and learn about French culture.”
The centre’s popular French Conversation Club reflects that motto of inclusion, with guest speakers, musicians and group activities. It serves as a resource and referral centre for other French activities in and around the Lower Mainland. The centre also provides an English practice group to help new immigrants improve their skills in Canada’s other official language.
Polish Community Centre
Zgoda Polish Friendship Centre was founded in 1926 by seven friends eager to maintain Polish identity, preserve the Polish language and help new Polish immigrants. After World War II, an influx of Poles settled in the Lower Mainland. In 1959, the association opened the Polish Community Centre on Fraser St.
“The mission of the centre is to promote Polish culture, language and tradition and knowledge of Polish history in Canada,” says Erika Moslinger, the centre’s manager.
According to Moslinger, many of the seniors and elderly are veterans and it is this history which informs the plight of early Poles in Canada. She says the first significant wave of Poles came to Canada after serving with the Russian forces. Many were taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Not wishing to return to Russian-occupied Poland, they took the chance and immigrated to Canada to work on farms or on the railway in the Lower Mainland.
The centre’s mission has not wavered since its early days. The centre helps immigrants with official forms, makes phone calls and points them in the right direction for services, including lawyers and schools.
When at one time, there may have been pressure for immigrants to give up their mother tongue and exclusively speak English, many youth of Polish descent are now learning the language of their parents and grandparents.
“Lessons at the centre enjoy full participation,” says Moslinger. “[Youth] are deeply involved in events throughout the year.”
Hellenic Community of Vancouver
Beautifully nestled behind St George’s Greek Orthodox Church at the corner of Arbutus and Valley Drive, the Hellenic Community Centre of Vancouver opened in 1977. Gus Karvelis, the centre’s manager, says he feels privileged to have to grown up through the centre himself. Speaking on behalf of Effie Kerasiotis, president of the community centre, he says the centre represents more than 12,000 Greeks in the Lower Mainland.
In the centre, enthralling to the eye, are images of antiquity and artefacts displayed behind glass. Overlooking the venue space is a massive wood mural pyramid.
“This space doubles as a gymnasium and banquet hall. We offer full catering,” Karvelis says.
He adds that they have a professionally organized and catalogued library for members of the community to use, which has been in place since the 1980s.
The centre’s list of programmes serving the community is long and impressive, with everything from pre-school services for growing families, to language lessons and traditional activities of all types. Karvelis highlights the Odysseas Project, Greek language tutoring online assistance, and classic performances of Hellenic traditional song, dance and instruments, but also points out that many social events which take place at the centre are intercultural in character.
“We welcome groups from outside to utilize the hall,” he says.
By bringing friends and showing them in, as Karvelis says, perhaps individuals who have never had the chance to see inside one of Vancouver’s cultural hubs can learn more about the other cultures and communities that make up their city.