A nearly 50-year tradition may not happen for what would be the fourth year in a row, though this year COVID-19 is not the culprit.
The first BC Elders Gathering was held 47 years ago in Sto: Lo Nation and hosted by the Coqualeeza Elders. A totem pole was carved to serve as a record keeper, with the places and dates of each subsequent Gathering being inscribed at the base of the pole as they occurred.
The event ran annually until 2020, at which point COVID-19 restrictions meant that the Gathering could not happen. As the 2023 rendition approaches however, new problems have emerged.
The B.C. Elder’s Communication Center Society (BCECCS) was left in the lurch when the 2020 Gathering was cancelled, and it was not just COVID that has caused them issues.
“We were left $145,000 in debt because two sponsors bowed out a few months before the event was to take place,” explains Donna Stirling of the BCECCS. “Even though we had incurred costs leading up to this cancellation, these entities pulled their $100,000 and $50,000 in support because the actual event didn't happen.”
This caused a snowball effect to take place. 2021 and 2022 were also cancelled due to the pandemic, and the BCECCS still owes 20 groups’ deferred registration fees, as they ran out of funds to provide reimbursement, and were left with no funds to provide a deposit on the next event.
The event will be cancelled Feb. 28, 2023 if not enough groups have registered to cover deposits, according to the gathering’s organizers. The next BC Elders Gathering is scheduled Aug. 14-16, 2023 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
“Corporate sponsors most often do not feel that supporting the elders gets them their 'biggest bang for their buck' so over the years keeping the Elders Gathering has proven to be a difficult task,” says Stirling.
Finances have not been the only problem plaguing the planning process for the 2023 event.
“Bands are incredibly slow at registering for the elders’ most important cultural event in B.C. in an average year and the level of local organization for the elders, but since COVID-19 it is even worse,” continued Stirling.
She attributes this to likely be due to a lack of staffing, saying that many First Nations do not have elders workers.
Stirling says that they need more from the federal and provincial governments for the event to continue happening.
“We need provincial and federal support and we get hardly any anymore,” she said. “It is like the elders are off almost everyone's radar these days.”
The BC Elders Gathering provides an opportunity for older Indigenous people from across the province to exchange memories and knowledge, helping to unite First Nations.
“The [b]asic purpose of the Gathering is the need for Elders throughout the province to have inter-social and community links that bind them together as a Nation,” states the BCECCS website. “It allows them to intermingle with like-minded, like-aged individuals and their families, to reveal common grounds that strengthen those links.”
Stirling says that anyone who wishes to help the Gathering happen in 2023 can email the BCECCS at firstname.lastname@example.org, and encourages any First Nations bands who wish to participate to register for the event as soon as possible.