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Native Friendship Centre faces closure

Community plans to mobilize and lobby provincial government for funding

The Native Friendship Centre of Montreal (NFCM) may be forced to close its doors in as little as three months if it cannot secure the necessary funding.

The NFCM is one of ten Native Friendship Centres in Quebec, and has existed for the past 37 years. There are 120 centres across Canada seeking to improve the quality of life for Aboriginal people living in urban areas.

The Montreal Centre offers its visitors health and social services, legal information, education and training, and employment opportunities.

Friendship Centres in Quebec receive funding through two organizations: the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), and the Regroupement des centres d’amitié autochtones du Québec (RCAAQ). The NAFC, in partnership with the RCAAQ, administers funds through the Aboriginal Centre Program (AFCP) to all the Centres in the province. The funds come from the Federal government’s Department of Canadian Heritage.

On October 12, 2011, the RCAAQ’s Board of Directors suspended the NFCM’s provincial membership. The Board informed the NFCM of this, by letter, on November 15. As a result, the NFCM’s core funding was officially and indefinitely suspended.

The RCAAQ claims the membership was suspended due to NCFM’s decision not to recognize their Final Special Bilateral Agreement and because of “the limited services being provided” by the Centre. Though the RCAAQ has stated its intentions to continue working with the NFCM to ensure Aboriginal needs are being met in the city, NFCM staff claim that the provincial organization is in fact unwilling to negotiate.

According to staff member Gordon Bird, the Bilateral Agreement was supposed to be a set of financial stipulations between the Centre and the RCAAQ but, instead, outlines the extent to which the RCAAQ can control the Centre’s operation. Bird said that the issue is not that money isn’t available, but that the two groups disagree over the terms by which it is given.

While the Centre considers itself autonomous and intimately familiar with the needs of the community members it serves, the RCAAQ insists it will not provide funding to non-recognized Centres.

“The agreement was intended to bring the Centre back to a safe financial state,” explained Joey Saganash, who works at the NCFM and coordinates its Street Patrol team. “But the Bilateral Agreement ended in July 2010. And by July 2010, the Centre’s financial, social and cultural mandates were being fulfilled. Everything was going right,” he said.

If the two groups can’t come to an agreement, then the NFCM will have no choice but to close its doors in as little as three months.

The closure would affect many Aboriginal Montrealers who rely on the Centre for services like counseling and internet access.

“There’s no other place in Montreal that offers similar services,” said Saganash. “It serviced my mother when I was a child.”

The Centre also regularly hosts community dinners and cultural events such as drum circles.

“We’re here to give support,” said Bird, who is helping to organize petitions for the reinstatement of funding. He called the Centre a “place of knowledge” where First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures are all welcome and embraced.

“Everyone loves coming here,” said Katie Ross, who has been visiting the Centre since she was 12 years old.

“We have big monthly suppers at the end of the month… people come to play games or have coffee. If it closes, where is everyone going to go? People have help getting jobs upstairs, and if this place closes, everyone’s going to be kind of lost. I’m really shocked and so is everyone here. I really hope it stays open.”

Ross worried that she might never get the chance to work at the Inter-Tribal Youth Centre (ITYC), a project based in the NFCM’s basement that organizes a variety of activities for Aboriginal youth.

The ITYC announced on Monday that it would be closing on April 1 due to the NCFM’s funding suspension.

However, the RCAAQ has recently announced that it intends to keep the ITYC open.

RCAAQ President Edith Cloutier wrote on the organization’s website, “We are now finalizing scenarios in order to identify an institutional Aboriginal partner that will agree to sponsor the Montreal youth project. The RCAAQ will involve the Inter-Tribal Youth Centre of Montreal in this decision.”

Yet the threat of closure for the NFCM remains real. On Thursday, the Friendship Centre will host a general assembly from 6 to 9 p.m. There, staff and community members plan to brainstorm ways to keep the Centre alive. In the meantime, the NFCM is circulating petitions and orchestrating a campaign for people to send letters to both the NAFC and the RCAAQ.

“We need to mobilize and take it to the next step,” Bird said.