Orcas in the City: The Earth Foundation and At-Risk Youth in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

By Emily Major — February 02, 2013

Earth Foundation, founded by Canadian artist Todd Polich in 2008, is a non-profit organization that helps children discover and apply their talents towards creating artistic productions. Polich has worked with over 1,000 children to design and paint more than 20 murals in the British Columbia area. His newest creation is titled “Orcas in the City.” The150-foot long mural, painted on the Sunrise Soya Foods building on Powell Street in Strathcona, Vancouver, was unveiled in August.

Polich describes the theme as an environmental ode to the West Coast’s ocean conservation, and the intricate link between nature and humans in urban cities. The mural depicts orcas as active symbols of resilience and sustainability. Polich enlisted children from KidSafe, an organization that helps at-risk youth, and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre to aid in the painting and design of the mural.

To understand the importance of these children’s work on the mural, it is necessary to know a little about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) and its residents. Known as “Canada’s poorest postal code,” the DTES was called Skid Row up until the late 20th century because of its many similarities to the infamous Skid Row in Los Angeles, CA. Alarmingly, life expectancy for people living in the DTES, a significant number of whom are Aboriginal, is almost five years shorter than that of the nearby Northeast Vancouver population.

Aboriginal youth are the fastest- growing demographic in Canada. However, there are many systemic problems within the Aboriginal community. These problems result in higher rates of school drop-out, incarceration, and suicide for native youth than for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. The lack of well-funded youth programs has been directly linked to an increase in crime, drug use, and decreased involvement in educational activities.

The importance of providing a sense of identity has been noted by the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, which reported that “urban Aboriginal youth centres are key components to providing that vital weave of support for Aboriginal youth.” However, in June of this year, a federal funding freeze was placed on Aboriginal Youth Programs.

By using art as a form of expression, Polich has taken at-risk Aboriginal youth from the DTES, and reinvigorated their sense of identity and belonging. The mural project was funded by the Strathcona Business Improvement Association and Sunrise Soya Foods.

Behind-the-scenes pictures and video of the Polich and the children as they were creating the “Orcas in the City” mural can be seen at Earth Foundation’s website.

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