Marion Cumming’s Inspirational Legacy: A Beautiful Act of Reconciliation

PHOTO: Darren Stone, Times Colonist

Artist. Activist. Philanthropist. Changemaker.

Marion Cumming wasn’t the type of person to let tradition get in the way of justice. At 19, she experienced the realities of poverty and injustice in Mexico, which inspired her to teach children at a local orphanage how to draw and paint, igniting a passion for social change and setting her on a decades-long path of making a difference that did not end with her passing last August.

Marion and her husband Bruce, who passed in 2008, gifted three significant properties to First Nations groups across the country. The Cummings donated a 280-acre farm near Fredericton, New Brunswick, to the Wolastoqiyik people, and then a property on Quw’utsun territories to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC), and finally a family home in Oak Bay, which was also given to the VNFC.

Dr. Robin June Hood, long-time friend, shared, “Marion was so deeply loving and generous. She wanted to create something that would develop peaceful relations between people — what she called her reconcili-action.”

“Before reconciliation was even a concept or a phrase that Canadians use, she and her husband were already sort of putting that into action,” explained Ron Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, in an interview with Kathryn Marlow on CBC’s All Points West. “We’re just so grateful to Marion and her generous spirit.”

Creating a Space for Art

Art was a significant component of Marion’s life, and she shared that passion with students across the country and throughout the continent, so it makes sense that her vision for her Oak Bay property would have elements of art and reconciliation. “Marion thought it might be a wonderful place for Indigenous artists in residence, with day programs, native plants, and elder circles,” shared Robin. “She used to hold art circles weekly, and she had a book club — for the past few years, it was an Indigenous book club. Various Indigenous authors came and presented their work and shared their stories. The whole house was a huge library with Indigenous literature and an amazing assortment of children’s books. Marion loved the idea of focusing on art and artists, small gatherings for healing and sharing and native plant gardening and teaching, weaving and drum making, and all those kinds of things.”

“The beautiful legacy of Marion lives on in her work and in our hearts.”

– Penny Allport, long-time friend

Victoria Native Friendship Centre

The VNFC has created a culturally supportive and respectful environment for everyone. The non-profit, Indigenous-led organization has a staff of 125 members, working on over 75 programs to improve socio-economic conditions for urban Indigenous peoples. There are over 8,000 community members throughout Southern Vancouver Island. The mandate of the VNFC is to encourage and promote the well-being of urban Indigenous people by strengthening individuals, family, and community.

“Marion very much about the land and rewilding it,” explained her executor, Arifin Graham. “She envisioned it to be rich with native species for Indigenous children, elders, and others to use and enjoy. Her intention was that it wouldn’t be sold or repurposed; rather, it was something that could give the Friendship Centre new opportunities for the wide, varied community that it serves.”

Planning for Perpetuity

“Marion was very vocal about her plans for the property and what she wanted to have done with it,” explained Natasha Benn, Manager of Philanthropic Services at Victoria Foundation. “We worked directly with her to set things up in a way that matched her vision.”

This bequest took many years of planning to ensure it was set up in the way that Marion anticipated. “This was a complicated gift,” explained Natasha. “The fact that she wanted the property to go to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre made it an unusual gift for them as well. One of Marion’s concerns was how the VNFC could manage the maintenance, insurance, taxes, and general upkeep of the property, so she worked with the Victoria Foundation to allocate funds so it wouldn’t be a burden on the charity. We had many discussions about what that might look like, and in the end, she opted for a permanent endowment with funds set aside from her estate. The Chikawich Sacred Land Sustainability Fund will provide ongoing funding to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre for general care, major repairs, and property taxes in perpetuity. In addition to the permanent fund, there’s a separate amount set aside for major emergencies, such as repairing the roof or replacing a water tank. The goal is to ensure the VNFC has what they need to fully make use of the property, without worrying about where the funds will come from to effectively manage it.”

Creating a Legacy

The Victoria Foundation works with many donors and potential donors to explore the ways they can support their favourite charities or causes. “For unusual gifts, I like to ask, ‘What is the burden of this gift?’ ” said Natasha. “For example, if it’s a valuable musical instrument, what will the inheritor need to do to protect the item? Does it require special storage or maintenance? Are there financial implications that come from this bequest? It’s important to ask these questions upfront to ensure the gift is well received. It’s not putting strings on the gift; rather, it’s about ensuring the person receiving it is able to use it in the way the benefactor intended.”

“Marion and her work are 100% the catalyst for my exploring the worlds of art and architecture, and for becoming an advocate for heritage preservation in New Brunswick. She did amazing work in her life, and I’m pleased to be asked to help with her legacy in any way I can.”

– John Leroux, leading historian of art and architecture and manager of Collections and Exhibitions, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick

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