Life off reserve can be tough. Increasing numbers of Indigenous people are living in urban areas (currently 56% of the Indigenous population), and like many who move to the city, they can find themselves cut off from community ties and support, and struggling to adapt to city life. For those of us who come from smaller centres, this is easy to relate to. Some of us succeed, some of us don’t. And some of us struggle to survive. Our fate is largely affected by the degree of community support we find.
For more than 50 years, Indigenous people have been able to find this support at Native Friendship Centres—a network of, currently, 119 community centres found in urban areas large and small, all across the country. They provide a wide range of programs and services to assist urban Indigenous people, as well as a space in which they can come together and meet up. And like most non-profit community centres, they rely primarily on federal funding.
Unfortunately, federal funding can be fickle, especially when it comes to Indigenous programming. On February 6, 2014, the federal Conservative government announced an overhaul of Native Friendship Centre funding. No longer will the government provide funding for cultural programming. Starting April 1, all funding will be “aligned” with government objectives, which are, solely, economic.
The government is calling it their “improved” Urban Aboriginal Strategy, which is “focused on increasing the participation of urban Aboriginal people in the economy.” The strategy eliminates four funding programs that covered all program areas—culture, language, sports, housing, health, education, employment—and replaces them with two funding programs focused only on economic programming.
Well, I call it eliminating and replacing; they call it “streamlining.”
The largest of the four funding programs being eliminated—the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program—is regarded as core funding by Native Friendship Centres. It is funding that they have received for the last 40 years. And they were given less than two months notice that it was being cut altogether.
There is a lot that is problematic with all of this, not the least of which is the lack of a heads up. Mostly I’m concerned about the more basic and essential services that Native Friendship Centres provide to those who are already marginalized and vulnerable—people dealing with a lack of food and housing, those at risk of suicide, those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.
I also find it distressing that the Conservatives have such a low regard for Indigenous cultural programming—apparently none whatsoever. Indigenous cultures may be vibrant and rich, but in urban centres especially they are also often in great need of nurturing and support—and, thanks to government policy over the last few hundred years, a lot of healing. The whole reason these centres exist is to support people who are at risk of being cut off from their communities and cultures. Native Friendship Centres are, primarily and fundamentally, places of community.
I, too, would like to see more urban Indigenous people find employment, but I see no reason why this must be accompanied by cutting all support for cultural programs. In fact, I see it as just one more reason to support cultural programs. What the Conservatives can’t seem to figure out is that economic activity and community support go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Nobody in this country has ever built up a healthy work life without a support network. How the Conservatives think that cutting cultural programming will help Indigenous people “participate in Canada’s economy” with any degree of success is beyond me.
This emphasis on economic activity above all else suggests that the Conservatives regard all of us, fundamentally, as economic beings—something that I find particularly offensive. But this is not about me, and it’s worse than that.
When it comes to Indigenous peoples, all of this smacks of assimilation. Frankly, it reeks of it: integrate the natives into proper Canadian society and strip away their cultural connections while doing so. It’s a vile attitude, and it’s a vile policy.