photos: Patrick and Larissa with Culture Saves Lives.

Culture Saves Lives

Heartbeats: Downtown Eastside movement opens up shop to offer healing through culture and community

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By Maddi Dellpain

Photo courtesy of Culture Saves Lives


On the corner of East Hastings and Carrall, at the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, stands a tree adorned with prayer ties and tobacco leaves.

This tree stands outside of the pop-up shop for the Culture Saves Lives movement, which officially opened its doors to the community in March of this year.

“For every culture: black, white, yellow or red, the more you know who you are, the stronger you will be,” says Kwagiulth founder of Culture Saves Lives, Patrick Smith (Fourbears), “The more you know your family and your ancestors, like a tree, your roots are deeper and you’ll stand stronger throughout storms.”

The opening of the pop-up shop at 1 East Hastings follows nearly two and a half years of work done by Fourbears and the group to help bring traditional spiritual and cultural practices back to the Downtown Eastside community as a system of care.

Culture Saves Lives is guided by the principles of mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health represented in the Medicine Wheel. Along with other elements of First Nations ancestral traditions, it works to reconnect all people of the community who have been oppressed by mechanisms of colonization and have historically been “left out of the circle.”

First steps
Fourbears, also the director of Aboriginal health at the Portland Hotel Society, began the Culture Saves Lives movement in response to the 2015 publication of the Paige Report.

Published by the former B.C. representative for children and youth, the report details the life of a young Indigenous teen named Paige. The report shows how despite Paige’s regular engagement with the child protective system, the health-care system, social service agencies, educational systems and police, all of these systems seemed chronically “unable or unwilling” to alter Paige’s trajectory of trauma and substance abuse.

Shortly after her 19th birthday, Paige overdosed in a public washroom near Oppenheimer Park. It was the result of what the report calls “pervasive system-wide indifference.”

Motivated by Paige’s story and others like hers, Fourbears and other members of Culture Saves Lives have been bringing spiritual care practices back to the Downtown Eastside, acting through a multifaceted public outreach approach. Fourbears describes it as “running with a license of common sense” and guided by a philosophy of “inclusivity, radical kindness, and non-judgement.”

Culture as care
The group regularly engages with the community through a multitude of traditional events, including, but not limited to, powwows and ceremonies, drum making, sage picking, smudging, and public art initiatives. One such initiative involved the creation of a 16-foot eagle feather that was later hung around the iconic East Van cross.

While Culture Saves Lives is involved in hosting events around the city, the core of the grassroots movement is driven by compassion and openness on a day-to-day basis. “It’s really hard to explain [what we do] ... it’s just about being one of the people,” says Mi’kmaq community member, Earl Crow (Crowman), who works as a cultural outreach worker with Culture Saves Lives. “Just letting them know that we’re here for them, and we focus on having compassion for other people .... We try and do what we can and help the people with where they are at in their days.”

Bearing a message of inclusivity, the group makes it a priority not to exclude or deny anyone access to their community and its services. “When they come through this door they know that they’re welcome and they’re not going to be hassled or asked if they’re thinking about detox ... we can set them up with another service provider that can maybe help them, but we don’t bring that up in our conversations with people. It’s just a place to be in and be who we are.

“I’ve been in this neighbourhood a long time, this is our family,” Crowman explains.

Tara Martin, an Indigenous community member originally from Kitimat, B.C., is a frequent visitor to the pop-up shop.

Tara describes the organization as being about “unconditional love.”

“There’s the drumming, and I love coming and listening to the drumming,” she says. “I want to know my native culture so badly—coming here and listening to the drum and finding all these native pictures on the wall, by coming here to Culture Saves Lives, it has saved my life.”

Testimonials like Tara’s can be found filling the pages of the yellow composition book sitting at the front entrance of the pop-up shop.

The community is invited to write whatever they like in the “Guest Book” during their visits. Its pages are brimming with comments such as: “I am here now, still standing clean and sober, thank you. [The] creator itself can not do anything better than this;” and “So glad I got the courage to walk into Culture Saves Lives. You guys are so welcoming, so accepting and encouraging. It’s awesome. I finally found my people. Thank you for always having an open door.”

Looking forward
Fourbears hopes to see more initiatives that are driven by respect and understanding.

“The whole health-care system and strategy is a very disempowering system, you know people always want to make choices for you. They think they know better, and what's good for your health care,” he says.

“It’s an outsider’s perspective.”

Fourbears notes the disassociation of a lot of organizations from the people they are trying to help, and emphasizes the need for a new approach.

“[We try to use an] empowering approach. We just really try to listen to the community really closely and observe what it's like, what's needed, and change what we need to change.”

Culture Saves Lives and its partners will be at 58 West Hastings on Sept. 8 for the launch of the “Blanketing the Loved Ones Lost” mural at the Vancouver Mural Festival. The group will also be taking part in the 6th annual Downtown Eastside Powwow honouring First Nations children on Sept. 9 at Oppenheimer Park.


Culture Saves Lives would like to acknowledge that they are on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, and express their profound gratitude.

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