Clock ticking on friendship centre Indigenous language hub as feds cut funding

Stoney Nakoda elder Winnfred Beaver scans through a new textbook of the Stoney language in Kananaskis, Alta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Ron Rice said it was like the wind was taken out of their sails when the Victoria Native Friendship Centre (VNFC) found out it was losing government funding for the Urban Indigenous Language Hub.

“It was one of those things that came out of nowhere where we originally thought this is where the momentum began,” he said.

“It’s not unusual for friendship centers to have to fight for funding for programs that we trust and believe in.”

Since 2018, VNFC’s language hub has had over 2,000 participants and produced numerous language resources supporting learning and revitalization for Greater Victoria’s urban Indigenous community.

The hub currently hosts classes in Nuučaan̓uɫ, Nehiyaw, Nedut’en Carrier, Dene and Dakota but without continued federal funding, those classes will cease to exist.

“It’s probably two or three months realistically, we’re having conversations with people around what does this look like if we remove these big pieces — transportation, food and professional fees,” said Rice who is VNFC’s executive director. “Some of our fluent speakers have said, ‘I don’t do this for the money, I do this because I want to teach language,’ but others rely on this money.”

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In the past, the program has had multiple funders including the First People’s Cultural Council and the National Association of Friendship Centres. However, the majority of the funding came from Canadian Heritage, who let VNFC know in late January that that funding wouldn’t continue.

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Canadian Heritage said “Funding applications from Indigenous organizations in urban settings or serving multiple distinctions are assessed by Canadian Heritage, based on the quality of the proposals, alignment with priorities and availability of funding.  For these reasons applicants that have been funded in one intake period may not be funded in subsequent intake periods.”

Rice said their file, proposal and jury notes are being reviewed but doesn’t know what that means.

According to the friendship centre, funding will now flow through the Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages which has “no language plan for urban Indigenous people” and a “limited funding model for  multi-language programs.”

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Canadian Heritage said the “Office of the Commissioner of Indigenous Languages is an independent, arm’s-length entity from the Government of Canada and is not involved in this process.”

In British Columbia, 78 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban centres and friendship centres across the country, like VNFC, provide various services to urban Indigenous people from language classes, food security, health and wellness, housing and homelessness to cultural programming.

“Then you think about the fact that UNDRIP is being implemented in British Columbia, it’s been adopted into legislation, this borders on discrimination based on residency,” said Rice. “So because I don’t live on a reserve, because I don’t live in my territory, I’m going to be treated differently than those who do.

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For many Indigenous people, living in an urban centre isn’t always a choice. Rice explains that Indigenous people often move to urban centres for education, employment, escaping abuse or even being adopted out.

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“It seems to me that the response we often get is, ‘If you want to do this, then you should go back to the reserve,’ which is really not an answer to anything,” he said.

In order to continue operating the language program, VNFC will need anywhere from 10 to $20,000 per month. They hope to have a new solution in place by the end of September but in the meantime are accepting donations and letters of support.

“It’s exhausting, it’s something that we have become very used to, it was just unexpected in this case,” said Rice.

“With such focuses on reconciliation and such emphasis on healing through culture it just seems unreal.”

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