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The Native Friendship Centre of Montreal (NFCM) is battling a "political vendetta," according to Brett Pineau, the Centre's executive director.
In his three years at the helm of the NFCM, Pineau has guided the 37 year-old centre back from near financial ruin to one of the most popular and valuable destinations for the Aboriginal population of Montreal.
Four months ago, his hard work was almost undone after the NFCM's suspension from the provincial association of Friendship Centres, the Regroupement des centres d'amitié autochtones du Québec (RCAAQ). The suspension resulted in a loss of roughly $171,000 funding from the federal government's Friendship Centre program, administered by the RCAAQ.
But the cut was not related to any budget cuts or government downsizing at the federal level. According to Pineau, the cut came as a result of systemic mismanagement of the program by the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC) and its provincial constituent, the RCAAQ.
"We blew the whistle on the national and the provincial association on the way they were running things, on the way they were administering the program," said Pineau. "They immediately turned around and suspended our membership."
Edith Cloutier, RCAAQ executive director, said the NFCM's membership was suspended after it withdrew from a special agreement with the association. In a letter published this month on the RCAAQ website, Cloutier writes that the NFCM knew that such a decision would "bring serious financial consequences with the suspension of federal funding under the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program (AFCP)," subject to the special agreement.
According to Pineau, however, the issues date back almost a year before their funding was finally pulled in March. By April 2011, with its over $100,000 deficit recovered, the NFCM no longer met the definition of a Centre in difficulty. Furthermore, the RCAAQ held the Centres funding from April to September that year. Both actions violated the RCAAQ's Criteria and Guidelines Manual, which outline the criteria for Centres in difficulty, as well as the criteria for the distribution of funding.
"We had tried resolving this diplomatically over the six-month period, and they essentially threw us under the bus in mid-September once we blew the whistle to the feds that they were radically departing from their own criteria and guidelines," said Pineau.
'This issue is not dead'
The funding cut in early March triggered a flurry of local news coverage proclaiming the impending closure of the Centre, coverage Pineau now says was overblown. The NFCM has since been able to recoup a majority of the losses through new funding commitments from Service Canada and the City of Montreal, among others.
The NFCM isn't abandoning its grievances with the various Friendship Centre associations, however, and has been attempting to bring the RCAAQ and NAFC before an Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program dispute resolution panel since December last year.
"The national association isn't off the hook yet. We're not done with them, they're just as implicated in the mismanagement of this federal program as the provincial association is," said Pineau.
"These are federal public funds that are at work here," he continued." There's a certain accountability to the parliament of Canada."
The AFCP Commission deemed the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal's request for dispute resolution warranted in February, yet the National Association of Friendship Centre have yet to respond to any communication since April 4. The NAFC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
As for the RCAAQ, Cloutier said they had exhausted all possible means of resolution.
"Unfortunately for us it came to that decision, which we weren't very happy about," added Cloutier. "We've decided to put an end to that relationship, and yes we declined the proposition to go to a dispute resolution process."
The special agreement at the centre of the controversy was signed in 2007 between RCAAQ and the NFCM in response to the Centre's severe deficit. The "special" agreement established specific funding and governance structures as part of a recovery plan for the Centre. Cloutier insists the agreement was extended annually - Pineau however, citing a three-year clause written into the original agreement, says the Centre has never been given any written evidence of an extension.
Gordon Bird, who runs the Ka'wáhse Street Patrol out of the Centre, said the NFCM has also been denied the possibility of upgrading from special status.
"We don't need that hand on our shoulder anymore," said Bird. "We're doing better, now just walk beside us. And as they walk beside us they say, 'No, we still want to have control over you.'"
Stuttering steps from Ottawa
According to Pineau, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) - which oversees the AFCP - have confirmed that they will intervene in the dispute should the DRP process fail.
"[The AANDC] indicated that if there is a failure in the [DRP], that's when they will be willing to become involved. We've made it emphatically clear to them that this is exactly what's happening," said Pineau.
In an email to rabble.ca, AANDC spokesperson Geneviève Guibert wouldn't elaborate on how the federal government would become involved.
"The issues in Montreal are an internal matter to the Friendship Centre Movement, and we look to the Movement, through [the RCAAQ and NAFC] to resolve it," wrote Guibert.
"All activities funded by the NAFC must comply with the terms and conditions set-out in their contribution agreement," continued Guibert.
Besides the NFCM's unilaterally withdrawing from the special agreement - which Pineau denied - Cloutier cited a second reason for suspending the NFCM's membership.
"It meets a mission that they chose that is oriented towards services for Aboriginal homeless people, which is OK, fine with us, but a Friendship Centre is oriented towards a range of services that meets the whole community," said Cloutier.
"There's 17,000 Aboriginal people in Montreal according to Statistics Canada, and it's not 17,000 people that are homeless," she continued.
Pineau says that, compared to Friendship Centres in more rural areas, the demographic realities of Montreal make fulfilling such a mission financially impossible.
"There are no available funds to target increased staffing to deal with the entire aboriginal population," he said.
"Montreal is grounded in a certain environment, a certain reality, and we have big city issues, we have big city problems," said Pineau.
The Street Patrol is one of several services the NFCM provides for Montreal's Aboriginal homeless population.
"We appear to be punished for the fact that Montreal has to deal with the higher number of social issues that are plaguing the city," he continued.
Overcoming the 'silo effect'
The NFCM's dispute seems symptomatic of a broader lack of coordination and collaboration between Aboriginal services in Montreal and across Canada. Pineau calls it a "silo effect."
"There's a lack of collaboration and a reluctance to work together amongst and between the organizations, to their own detriment," said Pineau.
Paige Isaac, outreach coordinator for the First Peoples' House at McGill, agreed.
"Working in silos, that's what people tend to do," said Isaac.
Isaac attributed the disconnect to a lack of time and human resources within organizations.
"We've got all our own projects as well," she said. "I'm asked all the time though to collaborate on different things."
Alana-Dawn Phillips, director of the Rising Sun Childcare Centre, said certain organizations choose to exclude themselves.
"There definitely are organizations that have a more silo mentality than others, and I'm not one of them," said Phillips. "I think it's important to have community involvement and support, and when I want it I seek it out myself, but we're not all the same."
Pineau thinks the mentality has been hampering the NFCM's attempts at getting their grievances heard.
"We believe that we've got a very strong case in terms of dispute resolution, and we believe that this is exactly why nobody's been willing to come to the table and talk to us, is because we have some pretty tough questions that need answering here," he said.
"People like to talk but they don't like to come to the table," he continued. "They're really good at backstabbing each other, but in terms of actually coming to the table with solutions and providing credible alternatives, it's seriously lacking."
No Friendship Centre has ever taken the NAFC to dispute resolution, and Pineau calls the ongoing collapse of the dispute resolution process a "failing of the national association infrastructure."
"There appears to be a certain level of incompetence, corruption and abuse of power tolerated within the national structure," he added.
Pineau said the NFCM is prepared to mobilize Friendship Centres across the country if necessary, including possibly introducing a motion at the next NAFC Annual General Meeting.
"If [dispute resolution] fails us then we are prepared to take whatever action is necessary in order to prevent this from happening to anybody else again," said Pineau.
Henry Gass is a recent McGill University graduate and freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work has appeared in the McGill Daily, Forget The Box, OpenFile Montreal, and the Montreal Mirror. You can follow him on Twitter @henrygass