A funding freeze to programs targeting aboriginal youth has friendship centres worried.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada informed organizations that work with aboriginal youth June 12 that $3 million in funding was frozen.
The money is distributed as part of the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program, a Canada-wide initiative supporting off-reserve youth ages 10-24 years old.
“We are concerned not just for our own centre, but for others across the province,” said Grace Elliott-Nielsen, executive director of the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre. “It’s a great disappointment because we work with so many youth.”
Paul Lacerte, executive director of the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, said in a press release that the federal government has told the association it’s cutting funding because it isn’t promoting job creation.
But he says that is exactly what the program does.
“Programs like CCAY are building an aboriginal workforce that is strong and sustainable,” he said. “We know that aboriginal youth have better outcomes when they have access to culturally appropriate life and job skills development services.”
Tillicum Lelum offers services through its Neutral Zone program for youths ages 10-24. It focuses on prevention, empowerment, building self-esteem and improving life skills such as communication and teamwork.
Youth that have used the program have pursued further education and some have gone on to serve on youth councils, said Elliott-Nielsen.
“Youth can connect with each other to socialize and participate in workshops to learn new skills,” she said.
The centre received funding for its youth programs for 12 years, up to 2009. Last year the centre wasn’t approved for funding and was awaiting word on its application for this year before the freeze was announced.
It’s been difficult to allocate money for the program and Tillicum has used money from other parts of the budget to pay for it. It is also relying heavily on volunteers to work with the youth.
Elliott-Nielsen said many aboriginal youth are dealing with issues of poverty, depression, employment and sexual abuse and they feel like “they have no hope”.
Places like the Neutral Zone work with youth to overcome those issues, and money received through the federal government helps run the programs, she said.
Genevieve Guilbert, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada spokeswoman, said the federal department is concerned the program is not currently meeting the most pressing needs.
She said it is being assessed and will be realigned with the key objective of ensuring more young Aboriginal People enter the workforce.
“We are working with stakeholders and are encouraged that the National Association of Friendship Centres is interested in reviewing how this important program might better equip aboriginal youth with the skills and experiences to take part in the economy,” she said.