Federal government forces closure of local youth centre
Lac La Biche Canadian Native Friendship Centre told to shut down New Horizons "immediately" last week
For the second year in a row, a disappointing move by the federal government forced the Lac La Biche Canadian Native Friendship Centre to lay off staff and shutter the popular New Horizons Youth Centre.
Last week, the local centre had to close down New Horizons, their youth program, after learning the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AANDC) was freezing Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth (CCAY) funding for Friendship Centres nationwide—funds that Lac La Biche and dozens of other Friendship Centres rely on to provide youth programming.
“We received shocking news … that we are to shut down all youth centre activities immediately,” said local Friendship Centre executive director Donna Webster. “The larger urban centres have access to other money, so they’ll probably be able to maintain their centres. But smaller places, like us, will have to shut their doors to local youth.”
Webster said that the AANDC had tried to transfer the $22 million allotted for CCAY to distribute to the 109 Friendship Centres across Canada earlier this year, but found the money had been frozen by the treasury.
In a June 14 letter to National Association of Friendship Centres president Vera Pawis Tabodondung, AANDC minister John Duncan apologetically wrote that changes have to be made to CCAY before the money will be distributed.
“[Prior] to proceeding with the delivery of Cultural Connections for Aboriginal Youth, the Department will need to improve the program’s accountability framework and ensure the programs Terms and Conditions align with the government’s priorities, which involve moving young aboriginals into the workforce,” Duncan wrote. “I understand … any changes will have consequences for the National Association of Friendship Centres, the provincial/territorial associations, and individual Friendship Centres.”
It’s an unfortunate case of déjà vu for Webster and local youth. Last summer, another gap in federal funding meant laying off staff and closing down New Horizons—despite the fundraising efforts by the centre and the community at large to keep the program running. Last fall, funding for the youth centre finally came through and they were able to run the program until last week—offering cultural programming, crafts, and educational components for aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth.
And that’s why hearing the news that they would have to again shut down the youth centre was so devastating: this time they were prepared to cover the $7,000 a month it costs to run the program.
“We were really optimistic heading into this summer,” Webster said. “We had financial reserves—we thought the process was going really well. This has been more devastating this time around, because we have been informed there will no longer be a youth centre as we know it—and have no idea what youth centre dollars will look like at the end of all this.”
Closing down New Horizons means cancelling a planned “Living History” project, where youth were to be trained this summer in audio-visual equipment so they could record oral histories from local elders. And the Friendship Centre will no longer be participating in this year’s 50th-anniversary Pow Wow Days celebration, as they no longer have enough staff to prepare a float.
Webster said she—and the youth and their families who regularly use New Horizons—can’t help but feel heavily disappointed.
“We had one grandma say: ‘what’s [my grandson] going to do?” Webster said. “And honestly, I don’t know where the kids will go now.”
But despite the frustration and disappointment, Webster said the National Association of Friendship Centres will continue to work with the AANDC to try and secure consistent funding for youth programming across the country.
But until that time, Webster said that New Horizons will stay closed—and as of now, she said she has no idea when Lac La Biche’s youth centre will reopen.
“We will not look at opening the doors of the youth centre until we have a secure and long-term agreement,” she said. “We can’t keep having this disappointment for the youth and the community every year.”
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