Executive Director of the NWSM, Nakuset, at a Women's Policy meeting with Liberal Leader Micahel Ignatieff, on March 14 in Montreal. Photo: Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

The purpose of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS) schools, which separated native children from their families for over 150 years, has been described by many commentators as “killing the Indian in the child. ” It is estimated that nearly half of the children originally enlisted in the schools died of malnutrition and disease.

The last remaining residential school closed in 1996.

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) was established in 1998, and given a mandate “to encourage and support, through research and funding contributions, community-based Aboriginal-directed healing initiatives which address the legacy of physical and sexual abuse suffered in Canada’s IRS System, including intergenerational impacts.”

But less than two years after Prime Minister Harper’s apology for the Canadian government’s role in administering the IRS system, AHF funding has not been renewed in Canada’s 2010 budget, leaving 134 foundation-funded healing projects across the country unable to properly continue. In many cases, organizations will be forced to close their doors as of tomorrow (March 31, 2010) when the cuts take effect.

Among the organizations that will be affected by the cuts is the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal (NWSM). The shelter will lose one third of it’s funding, and three employees will lose their jobs: a program co-ordinator, a sexual assault counsellor, and a clinical supervisor. The shelter had been receiving funds for the last 10 years.

Nakuset, the NWSM’s executive director, described some of the impacts the cuts will have on the shelter.

“There’s a really high percentage of the women that come through that have been sexually assaulted. Now that we’re getting our funding cut, we won’t have the specialized employee that we have because her position is gone…. We have 200 women, at least, that come to the shelter, plus the outreach services, which serves 176 clients, so all of them are going to be affected. ” 

Like many affected organizations, the shelter had received resoundingly positive feedback, and did not expect the cuts.

“The programming co-ordinator is the one that makes sure all the programming in the shelter is holistic. So that means we have an elder that comes every week and meets with the women. We have sweat lodge ceremonies, we have an art therapist, … The AHF was so impressed with the way we’ve been running our services that they wanted to use us as a sort of template for other organizations, to see how we use the holistic programming.”

Marie Ingram, director of the Hamlet of Cambridge Bay Community Wellness Centre in Nunavut, says some her staff are panicking. The centre provides a plethora of programs, including services to offenders, anger management, and drug counseling.

“We saw 190 clients here last month that we won’t see next month. Just because our funding stops, the needs don’t stop. Right now, I’m just trying to find funding, anywhere and everywhere. … People should be telling their government that we need this money. They created the social problems here. They should know they take a lot longer to fix.”

The executive director of the AHF, Mike DeGagné was taken by surprise on March 4th, when it became clear that no funds would be committed to the foundation.

“I thought that the funding would be renewed. We went through a rigorous evaluation process with government and did excellently. We have a great 12-year track record, exemplary audits, and great feedback from the [political] parties on the work we’ve done.”

What threw many of the community-based projects for a loop was the misleading language used in the budget announcement:

“Budget 2010 commits an additional $199 million over the next two years to ensure that necessary mental health and emotional support services continue to be provided to former [IRS] students and their families, and that payments to former students are made in a timely and effective manner.”

“When we heard that, mental health and support services — we thought, well, that’s us,” said DeGagné.

“But it wasn’t. Half is going to Health Canada, to their First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, and half to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). … I don’t know how Health Canada is going to figure out how to replace the services that will now be lacking in the next few days.”

Started in 2007, the federally funded IRSSA provides monetary payments to former students who lived at one of 139 officially identified residential schools. The Agreement also included funding for the AHF itself.

A 2009 report on the evaluation of the AHF undertaken on behalf of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) concluded that:

“There is almost unanimous agreement among those canvassed that the AHF has been very successful at both achieving its objectives and in governance and fiscal management. … Program enrolment is growing at an average of 40 per cent. … Enrolments include increasing ratios of historically hard-to-reach groups such as youth and men. … Although evidence points to increasing momentum in individual and community healing, it also shows that in relation to the existing and growing need, the healing ‘has just begun.’ … The majority of projects note they are not sustainable without AHF funding.”

Ninety per cent of respondents estimated that “more than 50 per cent” of their community members need healing from the effects of IRS, and “expert key interviewees” note that there is presently no equivalent alternative that could achieve the desired outcomes with the rate of success that the AHF has achieved.

The report recommends that: “The Government of Canada should consider continued support for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, at least until the Settlement Agreement compensation processes and commemorative initiatives are completed.”
The IRSSA officially expires in 2011.

“It takes years, generations to overcome the sorts of intense physical and sexual abuse that many people are suffering, ” says DeGagné.

“A lot of the people that access these services and attend healing sessions are actively in trauma. Some of them are talking about what they’ve been through for the first time — they have held it in for decades. If you attend one of these sessions where they come and talk about what they’ve been through and what they’re still going through, it’ll tear your heart out. And now the funding that they rely on is being cut, in days.”

Maya Rolbin-Ghanie is a Montreal-based independent journalist, creative writer, and activist.


Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...