Vancouver, Canada

The Vancouver Dialogues Project: Where the Gold Mountain Meets Turtle Island

City of Vancouver

April 12, 2013

Increasing intercultural understanding and connection between Aboriginal and immigrant communities

“You cannot come to this country and spend time without realizing the important relationship, we, who are newcomers, can have with the original inhabitants.” – The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, 26th Governor of General of Canada

“If you are not First Nations to Turtle Island [North America], you are an immigrant.” – Rupinder Sidhu, activist and performance artist

Vancouver’s earliest Chinese immigrants referred to Canada as a place of opportunity – the Gold Mountain. Less well-known is Turtle Island, the legendary name used by many First Nations people. As one of Canada’s three founding nations, Aboriginal communities are largely absent from conversations about diversity and multiculturalism. Immigrant communities have little chance for interaction and often maintain outdated stereotypes. Yet both groups have much in common, rich cultural histories as well as the experience of displacement, racism, and living outside of the mainstream.

The City of Vancouver is situated on Canada’s west coast within the traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples. In 2006, almost half its population was foreign-born, with immigrants and aboriginal peoples representing the two fastest growing demographic groups. Seeking a new approach to the city’s diversity and multicultural identity, in 2007 the Mayor’s Task Force on Immigration adopted an immigration plan that recognized the importance of First Nations and urban Aboriginals, stating: “This goal of inclusion is understood to be consistent with our existing commitment to honour and value the role of First Nations as the initial occupants of Canada.”

Within three years of that commitment, Vancouver launched the “Dialogues Project” to help create “a strong relationship between indigenous and immigrant communities with the City.”

Dialogue Circles

Developed by the Social Planning Division in collaboration with 27 community partners, “Dialogues Between First Nations, Urban Aboriginal and Immigrant Communities in Vancouver” aims to “build mutual understanding and respect” through activities that include dialogue circles, community research, and a youth and elders program.

Diversity was built into the organizational structure of the project. Its steering committee co-chairs included a Councillor from the Musqueam Indian Band, the Executive Director of the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre and a professor of Asian migrant communities from the University of British Columbia.

Sharing stories and cultural perspectives lies at the heart of the Dialogues Project. In a review of the project in Canadian Issues (Summer 2012), co-chair Wade Grant recalls how his Chinese grandfather met his grandmother in the market gardens in the Musqueam community: “We’ve always had that welcoming feeling, but over time, the immigrant community sort of left our community and the connection was lost…I always wondered: why did we lose that connection with the immigrant community.”

Questions like this are central to the dialogue circles. Over 18 months, nine different groups met three times each, building trust and deepening the conversation between members. Facilitators were prepared in advance to deal with contentious issues as pre-selected participants spoke of their personal experiences of racism, stereotypes and the effect of colonization on Aboriginal communities. Emerging from the discussions was a repeated emphasis on the importance of  intercultural understanding among the communities present.

Cultural exchanges are an especially rich opportunity for exploring new and shared histories. The local Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations welcome visitors to their reserves, as do the Chinese, Jewish and Ismaili communities, while First Nations and Mayan communities meet to share traditional healing practices.

Says Project Lead Baldwin Wong about developing a program in uncharted territory: “Everything we proposed was brand new so we didn’t know [if it would work]. We had this belief that things could work in this vision. Until you get to the organizing, planning and delivering of the project, of the initiatives, we couldn’t tell.”


One significant outcome of the Dialogues Project was the publication of Vancouver Dialogues: First Nations, Urban Aboriginal and Immigrant Communities. It documents the entire process and includes examples of the kinds of conversations that took place, short profiles of participants, and reflections on what activities worked. Other published resources include a DVD, a short film on youth and a collection of individual stories from a Vancouver neighbourhood called Our Roots: Stories from Grandview-Woodland.

What began as an 18-month project has grown steadily into a longer term vision. The Vancouver School Board Settlement Program started its own cultural exchange project, involving over 200 families to study the ties between Aboriginal and Chinese communities. The research component of the project has resulted in the development of an online Newcomers’ Guide to First Nations that will be launched in 2014. The first of its kind in Canada, it will include digital stories of the local First Nations in the area such as the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tseil-Waututh Nations.

Vancouver City Council has proclaimed that 2013-14 is a Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver, part of a greater effort to acknowledge past injustice to First Nations peoples and to further develop a culture of shared understanding and awareness of history for all its residents.

Making it Work for You:

  • Believe in your ideas. New and untested ideas have a chance as long as effort is put into organizing, planning and delivering of the project.
  • Create a safe and respectful environment for sharing. It takes time to build the trust that ennables participants to share their experiences.
  • To increase the quality and impact of community engagement, project leadership needs to represent the values and culture of participants and community organizations.

For this Good Idea contact:

Baldwin Wong, City of Vancouver
Woodward’s Heritage Building
Suite 501 – 111 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada,
V6B 1H4