The Forest of Miracles: A Spiritual Place for Healing and Hope

Dundarave Festival provides housing for homeless seniors

Bridget Stringer-Holden // Associate News Editor

“If you’ve got someone who’s in their 70s or 80s and they’ve ended up couch surfing, how is it possible to coach that person to find permanent housing? What does that look like? What ends up happening is a homeless shelter that was designed to be temporary housing ends up becoming permanent housing. What kind of home is that for someone who’s in their 70s or 80s?”

“What [the Dundarave Festival] means to me personally, and especially this year, is that hope always comes to us in ways that we don’t expect,” said Michael Markwick, festival spokesperson. “I don’t create my own hope, but hope has a way of breaking in and changing everything.”

The free-to-enter festival typically consists of a Christmas tree display, called the Forest of Miracles, and a live concert series on the four Saturdays leading up to Christmas. In 2008, six weeks before the festival started, the previous organizers were no longer able to run it. Marwick created a new business model, allowing donors to send their funds directly to Lookout Housing and Health Society.

“When we started doing this, I thought, well, it’s 2008 and the global economy has died, so maybe we’re raising enough money to buy socks and blankets,” he said. Instead, the festival raised $25,000 in its first year despite dropping tree prices to allow more participation. “Instead of buying socks and blankets, the trees were able to actually allow Lookout Society to buy permanent housing.” 

Each tree raises at least $250 in charitable donations to support Lookout Society’s operations on the North Shore. “The trees are sponsored by families, and community groups, or businesses,” said Markwick. “The Capilano Faculty Association has a tree there—our tree is dedicated to Elder Ernie George.” As of the end of December, the festival had raised $23,510—donating nearly half a million dollars over 12 seasons.

Although the society operates across the Lower Mainland, festival donations specifically help North Shore community members exit homelessness, with the Society matching up to $50,000 each year. “That’s really important for a couple reasons. Unlike their other sites, the face of housing insecurity and homelessness on the North Shore is the face of seniors and the face of young adults,” said Markwick, noting that their North Shore Homeless Shelter and the Downtown Eastside are equally busy. However, those who turn up at the North Shore shelter tend to be seniors—with one of the oldest residents being in their 90s—and young adults, ranging from recent high school grads to those in their early 30s.

“We know that the housing is occupied—it’s occupied by seniors in their 70s. If not for this housing, those seniors could have remained couch surfing with family and friends, they could have remained in the North Shore shelter, or they could be sleeping under a bridge,” said Markwick. “Each of those steps reduces their life expectancy—each of those circumstances.”

The festival also serves as a site for decolonization. “The Forest of Miracles, at its heart, is something that we have developed with Squamish Elders,” said Markwick, who helped create a Christmas tree medicine wreath. The wreath combines the colours of the medicine wheel—black, white, red and yellow—with the colours of the advent wreath—three purples and one pink. Each of the four Christmas trees is dedicated to a specific intention: Hope for Innocents, Hope for Women—including missing and murdered Indigenous women—Hope for Healing, and Hope for Ancestors. 

“What really strikes me—and you can see it yourself—is the women’s tree,” said Markwick. “It has handwritten names of missing and murdered women and girls from the nation and if we had lost that, it would have been very painful for the Squamish elders, for their families, for our community.” The elders described it as “a spiritually powerful place,” and in keeping with their protocol, both the wreath and Forest of Miracles were blessed and smudged.

“In our performance space, which the Squamish elders blessed and called the festival longhouse, we’ve had the guy who was sleeping on the beach that night, standing right next to the billionaire who has a waterfront property four houses down,” said Markwick. “I kind of created the business model and the structure of using arts and culture for social change—it’s now become the principal celebration of arts and culture in West Van’s Christmas.”

For the first time, the light display covered 15 blocks in West Vancouver, accommodating social distancing guidelines. “We built it in a way that allows people all kinds of ways to stay away from each other. Our messaging for the festival is ‘keep a loving distance’,” says Markwick, explaining that this allowed a chance for families who weren’t all in the same bubble to meet up and see each other.

Markwick finds that the pandemic makes this work all the more significant. “Everyone’s told to shelter in place, we’re told to stay in our homes. What do you do if you’re a 70-year-old, you’re at a high risk of dying from COVID, and you don’t have a home to stay in?”

“I don’t think it’s histrionic to say that the trees in the forest of miracles, especially at this moment in this Christmas, is a life or death resource,” said Markwick. “Lighting up a Christmas tree is an act of mercy: it is one of the most tangible ways that we can protect the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Lookout Housing and Health Society use donations to support essential services for the homeless. According to the website, the society “has used this money to support essential services for the homeless, doubling the transitional services it provides to the most vulnerable members of our community.” To donate, go to their webpage.

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