News | Women protest cuts to aboriginal community fund

Ottawa sit-in ends in arrests, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada cites security concerns

Six non-native women protesting the recent discontinuation of federal funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) were arrested in Ottawa on March 29, approximately one hour into a sit-in at Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl’s office.

The protest was organized to express solidarity with the AHF, which funds the work of 134 community-based aboriginal support services that aid survivors of Canada’s residential school system. The organization began in 1998 with a $350-million grant from the federal government. However, the 2010 federal budget did not renew funding.

According to protester Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, once the police arrived, the women were given 30 seconds to either leave or be arrested.

“I asked them if we could have 60 seconds, if we could have a minute to discuss this, and they said, ‘No – 30 seconds,’” she said.

“What was surprising was how quickly it escalated. Normally, at least as far as I know, the police have protocols where they escalate fairly slowly, and it usually lasts several hours,” Rolbin-Ghanie continued.

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) spokesperson Margot Geduld said that the women were arrested because of a “security consideration.”

But Marc Menard, spokesperson for the national capital division of the RCMP, would not comment on whether or not security had been a concern. He said, however, that the women were ticketed for trespassing.

The decision to cut AHF’s funding has been met with widespread “disbelief and shock,” according to AHF communications director Wayne Spear.

“We had no guarantee that we’d get additional funding beyond March, but since there aren’t many services available in aboriginal communities people were quite upset that these services would be disappearing,” he added.

Funding was not renewed despite an INAC-commissioned evaluation of the organization that was overwhelmingly positive. The evaluation found that “the healing is gaining momentum, but that in relation to the existing and growing need the healing ‘has just begun;’ project reports and interview results indicate a high level of continued need for healing according to an array of negative social indicators attributed to [residential school] trauma.”

The evaluation went on to say that “that there are few if any viable alternatives to achieve the positive healing outcomes the AHF has been able to achieve with such a degree of success.”

According to Geduld, the 2010 allocated budget $199 million over two years “to ensure that survivors [of residential schools] continue their important path to healing.”

“Certainly Health Canada will continue to work closely with the aboriginal communities,” she continued.

Health Canada will receive $65.9 million over two years for the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support program, an existing Health Canada program, according to Paul Duchesne, director of Health Canada’s Media Monitoring Unit.

The remaining $133.2 million will go toward the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) and the Common Experience Payment (CEP). Both the IAP and CEP programs award money to residential school survivors as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

But critics worry that operating programs through government agencies rather than community-based groups will have detrimental effects on residential school survivors. “There’s been a history in Canada of aboriginal people having solutions brought in from outside, depending on government, being dependent on these resources,” said Spear. “[With the AHF] we had examples of people being self-sufficient and taking control of their own well-being. It was successful, all the research said it was doing good work, but [the government] is not going to encourage that any longer. It should be clear to anyone who’s looked into it that this is a step backward,” he continued.

The loss of AHF funding is just one in a recent series of federal funding cuts to aboriginal organizations. Federal funding of $7.2 million was withdrawn from First Nations University of Canada earlier this year. Sisters in Spirit, a national project that addressed violence against indigenous women and raised awareness about the issue, also lost its funding in the 2010 budget.

“It seems to me that there’s a broader phenomenon going on here,” said Rolbin-Ghanie. “The people who are actually doing the on-the-ground work are no longer being funded.”

Geduld, however, refused to draw a connection between the recent funding cuts.

“[These are issues] that have been in the media recently, but there’s really not a link between them at all. I don’t even see how you can link them,” she said.