Federal funding cuts halt Comox Valley program for off-reserve aboriginal youth

The Wachiay Friendship Centre is shutting down a teen program and laying off staff in the wake of federal cuts to aboriginal youth funding.

Wachiay's Ravenback program had offered culture and recreation activities, and staff mentoring towards healthy lifestyles for 13- to 19-year-olds.

"With the challenges that face youth in general today — and there are additional things that aboriginal youth are facing — this comes as a shock to us that this programming would end," said Wachiay program director Roger Kishi.

The federal Conservatives have frozen $3 million in funding to the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program, a $22-million initiative that supports off-reserve aboriginal youth in the 10-24 year age bracket. The cutback means some organizations, such as a First Nations treatment centre in Nanoose Bay, might have to close.

Notice of the funding cut came June 12 from the office of Aboriginal Affairs/Northern Development Minister John Duncan, the MP for Vancouver Island North. It is retroactive to April 1, which means money spent by CCAY-funded organizations during the first quarter of the fiscal year will not be reimbursed.

Wachiay was blindsided by the news even though it had asked about CCAY funding when it met with Duncan shortly before the announcement, Kishi stated. In defence of Duncan, however, Kishi understands the Treasury Board decided to freeze the funds.

"We have heard that the minister did go to Treasury Board and he did argue for funding the program," Kishi said. "To be fair, Mr. Duncan is trying to come up with a solution, but he's facing his colleagues in the cabinet, and that's where the brick wall is.

"In the large scheme of things of the federal budget, we're talking about $22 million for a national program. Locally, the hit to us is $75,000."

Besides program activities, the money had covered wages of a co-ordinator and an assistant. The Ravenback program had served about 150 youth.

"If the government looked at this as an investment in aboriginal youth, we would be able to see the return on that investment in things like youth finishing high school, youth to move into employment, youth not entering the criminal justice system or the social assistance system," Kishi said. "It's a very short-sighted decision...For a bean counter, how do you set a dollar value for a healthy community?"

Kishi notes the funding freeze follows cuts to health funding to organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations.

Duncan was to meet Thursday with the National Association of Friendship Centres (NAFC), Wachiay's national body based in Ottawa.

While its primary goal is to ensure aboriginal youth benefit from the CCAY program, government says it is concerned the program is not "meeting their most pressing needs." The CCAY funding situation is unrelated to Budget 2012, says Duncan's office.

Aboriginal Affairs will work with stakeholders to "better align delivery of the programs," with the objective of moving a greater number of young aboriginal people into the work force.

"Efforts are being made to quickly assess this situation," Duncan's spokesperson Jan O'Driscoll said. "We are working with stakeholders and are encouraged that the NAFC is interested in reviewing how this important program might better equip aboriginal youth with the skills and experiences they need to take part in the economy."

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