Skip to content

Victoria Native Friendship Centre Elders first to go virtual during pandemic

Growing Zoom following started with 53 shouts of ‘bingo’ and lingering laughs
When the pandemic hit, keeping people at home, the Elders were first to go virtual at Victoria Native Friendship Centre, thanks to programming already in place for nearly a year. (Courtesy VNFC)

A virtual bingo game with 53 grand prize winners shouting “bingo” all at once is the stuff legends are made of.

It’s a true story that draws giggles and guffaws from anyone who hears, and that’s likely anyone who interacts with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC).

When COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, the centre closed abruptly. Elders were told not to come in, and staff worked to create hampers for homes instead of community meals, said centre executive director Ron Rice.

Elders were the first to go virtual.

When the pandemic hit, keeping people at home, the Elders were first to go virtual at Victoria Native Friendship Centre, thanks to programming already in place for nearly a year before. (Courtesy VNFC)

It started small with bingo cards in the hampers and an online game. The organizer opted for one bingo card, the same card copied into each of the hampers. She too had the same card and knew the precise moment each of her 53 virtual bingo players would shout in unison.

READ ALSO: Oak Bay artist leaves land to Victoria Native Friendship Centre

The result was 45 minutes of laughter, and the story that still inspires chuckles.

It’s among the first stories Brendan Decontie and Keeghan Polard of Ursa Creative share when asked about their work with the centre.

The Victoria-based Indigenous tech company is the reason the Elders were so prepared, well ahead of the pandemic. Decontie previously worked with VNFC doing workshops in its Career, Employment and Education Resources program, as well as on the website for the centre’s 50th anniversary in 2019.

He started by answering questions as simple as how to use a phone to snap a pic of a grandchild, and that evolved into concerns about logging into Facebook or writing a document.

They seemed to slowly develop a curriculum without a curriculum, Polard said with a laugh. And some of it was serious work, helping Elders who were actually developing curricula to teach language courses through the University of Victoria.

“We had no knowledge of the pandemic or how useful it would be later on,” Polard said.

The teaching also paid dividends, as Elders and seniors passed the skills to each other. They also passed their generational knowledge down to the tech teachers.

READ ALSO: Victoria retirement community raises over $20,000 to help Indigenous youth

“Every time I left with a different story that helped shift my perspective on living and wellness,” Polard said.

He heard stories of residential schools and the challenges of moving from rural communities into the more urban areas of Greater Victoria.

Lisa Mercure, Indigenous culture and traditions coordinator at VNFC, is proud of the resilience of their Elders and seniors.

“We began with two Elders in 2018, then reached out to more of our revered Old Ones and Elders to help plan how we can create a culturally welcoming space,” she said.

Those who wanted to learn picked it up quickly, Decontie said. “It’s definitely a steeper learning curve, but they’re capable. Some are whizzes.”

For both men the interactions were enjoyable. There was a fun energy and the afternoon of time spent every few weeks was easily spent on community and Elders, Polard said. “Our business is built on a community function.”

That first bingo started the pandemic Zoom initiative to combat social isolation, but it quickly grew to as many as 140 people signing on for meetings. Then participants started organizing themselves into cohorts of men’s and women’s groups, Rice said.

The skills put the local friendship centre ahead of others. When the national organization had three tablets available for each site in B.C., many declined, because the intended use was for elders, who couldn’t use them, Rice said.

“Now with the vaccine clinic and more than 2,500 Zoom events since last March, VNFC has nearly 300 Elders and seniors connected,” Mercure said.

The Victoria Native Friendship Centre welcomes all community members to participate in the Zoom calls to build connections in community. Find events and more online at

For more news delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

Do you have a story tip? Email:

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like us on Facebook.

An Elders tea Zoom with Nihiyaw Cree (Alberta) actress Tantoo Cardinal. (Courtesy VNFC)

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
Read more