By Heather Andrews Miller
Two decades have come and gone since Xavier Michon passed over to the spirit world in 1987, but his legacy lives on and continues to enrich the lives of Aboriginal people across the country each and every day.
Michon was born in 1920, a member of the Fort William First Nation in northern Ontario. Like many Aboriginal people of the time, he grew up in an environment of poverty and discrimination, but soon he would get a taste of what it was like to not be constantly judged based on the colour of his skin.
At the age of 20 he enlisted in the army, one of nearly 78,000 Canadian men who answered the call to arms in the summer of 1940. He found himself in action in North Africa and Italy, part of the Fifth Armoured Division, also known as the Nine Mile Snipers. He and his fellow soldiers encountered incredibly difficult conditions in life-threatening battles, including never-ending rain and treacherous mountain roads. But despite being wounded in battle, he survived and was awarded five medals of heroism.
As tough as the conditions were during the war, Michon felt good in uniform because he and the other men were equals. Dressed the same and fighting the same battles, he felt accepted and united in the common goal of gaining freedom for the world. Following the war, he returned to the job he had left and became a master baker.
He married and raised two sons and a daughter.
In the early 50s, desiring a career change, he accepted a position with the Abitibi Provincial Paper mill at Port Arthur, which later became Thunder Bay, and immediately began to experience discrimination once again. He and other Aboriginal workers had only the union to protect them from being run off their jobs.
As he became more and more aware of how unfairly Aboriginal people were being treated, he also became more determined to try to do something to change the situation and began volunteering his spare time to help other Aboriginal people.
It wasn’t long before others began following his example and joined him in his cause. A small building was obtained and a fledgling friendship centre began to grow. Michon and the other organizers began recruiting members. At the same time, Michon joined other organizations so he could work from within the community to promote interest in and increase recognition of the friendship centre and its growing membership.
He tirelessly addressed service clubs and social agencies in the area to let them know the needs of Aboriginal people and tell them how their members could be of assistance.
Not content to concentrate only on assisting the Aboriginal people of Thunder Bay, Michon began to visit nearby First Nation communities in Fort William, Red Rock, Nipigon, Pays Platte and Long Lake, to name just a few. He began a campaign to help the residents clean up their communities and take pride in their development.
He brought in badly needed clothing and set up links for people moving into Thunder Bay. He inspired others with his dream of building a strong community where Aboriginal people could enjoy independence, a home for their families and jobs to support them, and where they could have a chance to enjoy a good life. By the late 1960s, he had secured enough funding to staff and equip the Thunder Bay friendship centre, and agreed to serve as its executive director.
Once the Thunder Bay centre was on solid ground, Michon turned his attention to the national stage. Since the mid-1950s, more and more Aboriginal people had been moving to the larger urban areas of Canada, seeking an improved quality of life, and friendship centres had been forming in those communities to assist the growing population.
There was widespread recognition that these newly transplanted people required counselling and referrals to needed services, including housing, education, employment, and health, which the centres could provide. Like the Thunder Bay centre, the other friendship centres that were springing up across the country were dependant on funds raised through private donations, grants and fund-raising activities.
Michon joined with a group of representatives from the other centres and work began to establish the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), with Michon taking his turn as president in 1974. With a national body in place, the federal government began to recognize the vital role the friendship centres filled in the communities they served and modest federal funding was secured.
While Michon played a pivotal role in the early days of the friendship centre movement, he gave tirelessly of his time to many other organizations as well. He was president of the Native People of Thunder Bay Development Corporation, which is still in existence today, helping Aboriginal people in the area find housing.
He gladly lent a hand at repairs and improvements, often making house calls himself to fix leaky pipes or broken furnaces, then staying to visit with the tenants, offering counselling, advice and encouragement. He also was a member of the Welfare Council of Canada, Canada Manpower’s Task Force on Native People, the Ontario Government’s Task Force on Natives and the Law, the Smith Clinic for Alcoholism, Family and Children’s Services, and numerous others. Over the years and through his involvement in these groups, he addressed the issues affecting Aboriginal people in Canada, and was often the first person of First Nations ancestry to sit on the boards of these organizations.
While he was involved in a number of efforts aimed at improving the lives of Aboriginal people, Michon’s assistance also took a more direct form. He would often personally help people by contributing his own money for groceries or to pay a fine to keep someone out of jail.
His tireless efforts and many accomplishments earned him the respect of the people of Thunder Bay, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
When he died in 1987, Michon left behind not only his loving family, but also hundreds whose lives have been touched by the friendship centres which exist throughout the country, and which continue today to provide a welcoming place to Aboriginal people across Canada.In 2004, he was inaugurated posthumously into the senate of the NAFC.
His story will headline a memorial section on NAFC’s Web site honouring the founders of the movement that has resulted in friendship centres being established in 117 communities across Canada.
Today the Thunder Bay friendship centre Michon founded is known as the Indian Youth Friendship Centre. At its 25th anniversary in 1989, a portrait of Michon was unveiled. Today it hangs where it can be seen by all who come to the place he founded, a place where Aboriginal people can feel welcome, get assistance when needed, and enjoy programming and cultural activities that promote a healthy lifestyle.
The centre continues to support its many members just as Michon dreamed it would. The vision that the Grandfather of Friendship Centres had so many years ago has been realized and, thanks to the many who have been inspired by Michon’s dream and his dedication, the work he began will continue on.