Tsimshian-inspired Elders’ Housing Promotes Cultural Sharing

At 7 pm nightly, drumming and singing break the evening stillness as Elders gather on separate balconies to honour Prince Rupert healthcare workers on the frontlines of COVID-19.

The ritual has united Elders from diverse First Nations and non-First Nations in the beautiful new Cedar Village housing complex. The $14-million facility for people over 65 features a unique Coast Tsimshian design and was opened by the Metlakatla Development Corporation (MDC) with BC Housing funds in December.

Ron Nyce is a 72-year-old elder from the Nass Valley and High Chief by the name of Simooget Gilseen of the Nisga’a Nation. He and his wife Jackie Nyce organized the daily drumming when the coronavirus struck. “We wanted to support the health frontline workers and say we’re very thankful for all the work you’re doing in putting your lives out there for all of us,” says Nyce.

A fluent Nisga’a speaker, Nyce starts off the singing with words in his language: “Keep up the good work. Stay steadfast on the good work you’re doing. We thank you.”

“When I’m done the Tsimshian will kick in. The young ones stand on the roadside – they have a beautiful song. After they’re done, the Haida begin,” he explains. “The elderly Haida also brought some of their young ones and they stand on the road and start singing their song.”

“I’m really astonished. There’s about 12 of us that drum here and we’ve never practiced. It’s almost as if it was meant to be. Almost as if we’ve been practising this for a long time.”

The Cedar Village drumming group also offers a way for elders to cope with the concern they all share about the COVID-19 virus. “We’re actually quite nervous. I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” he says.

Nyce says the new seniors’ housing complex allows knowledge-sharing between diverse cultures. “We learn from each other. I learn off other nations how they do things. They learn off me how Nisga’a do things.”

Property Coordinator Kelly McRae is a member of the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, who grew up on the North Coast. “We have a lot of people whose paths wouldn’t have crossed otherwise,” she says. “I’m Cree from the Prairies. I actually get to learn a lot from the Elders of different backgrounds. It’s an inspiration for me as well.”

McRae says the building’s unique cultural elements and circle design encourage people to spend time together. Coast Tsimshian totem poles at each entrance represent the four Metlakatla clans – wolf, raven, eagle and killer whale. Massive cedar hats perch on each roof of the two buildings. On the top floor, the interior of each hat provides a dome over a large open space designed for craft-making, movie nights and other group activities. Big circle tables and a well-equipped kitchen downstairs invite gatherings and celebrations with visitors.

MDC Development Consultant Taylor Zeeg, who led the project, says workshops were held in Metlakatla and Prince Rupert for seniors to give input on the design. “People love it. We’re getting incredible feedback. The units are energy efficient with nice landscaping and back decks, and they’re much bigger than standard BC Housing units.”

Zeeg says the project grew from the Nation’s long-standing Metlakatla Cumulative Effects Management Program. Priority community values were determined as a way to measure development impacts on Metlakatla over the long term. He says members identified affordable housing as a key priority. Currently 29 of the 32 units are occupied.