Several hundred members of the city’s aboriginal community took to the streets in protest Thursday over the federal government’s plan to realign 14 youth programs they say will have devastating effects on young people.
Christine Smith, co-chair of the Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council, said aboriginal agencies shut down programs in Vancouver and the suburbs because the government recently stopped funding the $1.3 million worth of programs.
Smith said the government’s decision runs contradictory to its message of fiscal responsibility. She predicted losing the programs will lead to higher social costs for the federal and provincial government.
“When you talk about our youth, they’re our most vulnerable population—they have the highest drop-out rate, they have the highest suicide rate and these programs are really needed to connect youth to their culture,” said Smith outside the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings before leading protesters along Commercial Drive.
The protest coincided with the aboriginal community’s annual march to celebrate National Aboriginal Day in Canada. The march ended at Trout Lake, where protest was mixed with aboriginal performers drumming and singing.
At issue is the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program, which is an umbrella mechanism that funds 14 projects within agencies such as the Urban Native Youth Association, the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society and Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing centre.
“Each program serves about 30 youth and you times that by 14, you’re looking at 420 youth who will be impacted directly,” said Stephen Cain, a 21-year-old member of a youth council that chooses which programs gets funded.
Programs include workshops related to culture, education and training, healthy living, preventing family violence and canoe clubs.
In an email to the Courier, a federal government spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said funding hasn’t been cut to the Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth program.
“The money isn’t being cut, it’s on hold until our department ensures that its terms and conditions are aligned with our key objective of moving more young aboriginal people into the work force,” Michelle Perron said in the email.
The government announced in March the Cultural Connections for Youth program was one of three components of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Program transferred to Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
The transfer became effective April 1. But with the money “on hold,” Smith said the 14 programs were cancelled and staff laid off. Some organizations are facing a $30,000 deficit because of the government’s decision, she said.
Perron said the government’s primary goal is to ensure aboriginal youth benefit from the Cultural Connections for Youth program “but we are concerned that it is not currently meeting their most pressing needs.”
Added Perron: “That is why we are focusing our investments on programs that will equip young aboriginal people with the skills and experiences that will help them to participate in the economy.”
The National Association of Friendship Centres, which administers the program funding, said it is working with the federal government to change the terms and conditions that may result in future funding.