This totem pole is going up in the front entrance to the Friends United Centre in Kempt Road.

KEMPT ROAD: As they plan to re-open fully to the public, those at a local facility are staying busy with a number of projects.

Canadian Pioneer Estates Ltd. founder/president Rolf Bouman, one of the managers of the Friends United Centre in Kempt Road, told The Reporter they are planning to open to the public in three to six months, during which time they will address accessibility and other issues.

Among the visitors and users of the facility were 30 Mi’kmaq grandmothers who held a drumming session more than a month ago. Bouman said they spoke about the importance of their culture which they articulated into words that were left on large sheets of paper to inspire others.

“They spoke much about the important role of females, of the mother in Mi’kmaq communities,” he recalled.

One of the 43 artists involved with the facility, British Columbia carver Gerry Sheena has finished two totem poles, and is working on a third to be situated in the lobby of the centre. He created other totem poles already on display in other parts of the centre.

“It love it here,” Sheena said. “It’s spacious, it’s quiet. (Bouman) set this whole place up here for me to work and you can just walk to the centre for more inspiration, and drive around anywhere on the island here. It’s beautiful.”

Bouman had two 500-year-old red cedar logs (about 80 feet in length) shipped 6,000 kilometres from British Columbia for the project.

“I learned for the first time, how expensive two trees in shipping can be, because the bill, it was amazing. I could’ve bought a nice big car for that,” he remarked. “It was important to get those here.”

Sheena said the logs were cut into seven, 10-foot-long sections which were used to make a table, blocks to create masks, and the rest for totem poles which he hopes to finish by the summer, before he has to return to the west coast.

Photos by Jake Boudrot
British Columbia carver Gerry Sheena is hoping to complete his third totem pole before the summer so he can return home.

Since Bouman moved from Germany to Canada in 1986, he has been working on eliminating prejudice and on focusing the world’s attention on First Nations people. After researching for many years and working to ensure long-term funding, Bouman founded in 2009 what eventually became the Friends United initiative.

The idea for the convention centre started not long after when Bouman and other land developers were looking to give back to the community and do something socially responsible with their profits.

The initiative and the convention centre complex are funded and supported by the Bouman Group, which consists of Canadian Pioneer Estates Ltd., Canec Land Developments Inc., Kelly Robertson Consulting Inc., and (Ad)Venture Canada Publishing Inc.

When the centre first opened, Bouman said the original intent was to tell First Nations stories, help communities and demonstrate the significance of that culture, but that evolved.

Both the Friends United International Convention Centre and the Friends United initiative aim at educating Aboriginal artists to become self-sufficient and independent entrepreneurs through their art.

The land developers who constructed the centre started a publishing house where the profits go back to First Nations communities. Bouman said the owners have also initiated a program where artists trade their work for land, deeded to them by the developers. And the artists have a business mentorship program which helps them get established as entrepreneurs.

Since many seminars with an international audience were held at the centre, it allowed the Native artists belonging to the Friends United initiative to display their artwork to a worldwide audience, Bouman said. The Friends United initiative is known to many people worldwide and has assisted in making Aboriginal artists spiritual and cultural ambassadors for Canada, he noted.

In addition to Mi’kmaw artists, Bouman said the centre features of the work of other First Nations artists, and features the largest private collection in Atlantic Canada of Native art including Inuit carvings.

The majority of the works at the facility depict harmony, friendship, love, and family, but Bouman said the art also portrays the dark side of this experience, like the high child suicide rate in First Nation communities, the disturbing rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the generational damage caused by the residential school system.

“That’s one thing that we definitely want to change because it has to change,” Bouman said of the child suicide rate. “The world needs, right now, a lot of hope and peace and we’re trying to give that wherever we can.”

Some of the other works contain environmental messages using traditional First Nation elements air, water, sun, and plants.

“Now people understand how we don’t just talk about it; we don’t talk the talk, with First Nations, we walk the walk with and for First Nations,” Bouman stated. “We feel very honoured that our Mi’kmaq friends come here all the time, use the facility for free.”

Not just art, Bouman wants to promote and preserve the culture.

“We’re trying to help our First Nation friends to get more identity back, and we can facilitate that by bring elders and chiefs in, to talk about the old Mi’kmaw stories; we’re trying to do that,” he noted. “But money alone will never accomplish reconciliation; there’s mutual respect, there’s friendship, there’s many possibilities.”

The global pandemic shutting down global travel and reducing gathering limits has created a lot of issues.

“A lot of our clientele is from all across the world, and since nobody can fly here, it makes it interesting, to put it mildly. That certainly has made it difficult to fund some of our projects since we’re not government-funded ever, because we don’t want to be. It’s certainly cut our funding down a lot, which makes it difficult,” Bouman stated. “Certainly, it made it difficult for the use of the centre.”