Canada is planning to cut up to 75 per cent of its funding to Native friendship centres across the country.

There has even been talk of cutting all funding to the 99 friendship centres in Canada.

News of the cutbacks left staff at Montreal’s Native Friendship Centre stunned when they first heard it from federal officials just weeks ago. Montreal’s centre is already having a hard time serving 44,500 Natives with an annual subsidy of only $200,000 from the federal Heritage Ministry.

The friendship centres in Chibougamau and Val d’Or will also be affected by the cuts.

“We don’t agree with it,” said Ida LaBillois, executive director of the Montreal centre. “We will lobby against it.”

Ida said for every penny the centre gets from the government, it provides three pennies worth of services. She also said the cutbacks will hurt the centre’s effort to find a new building.

Getting a new building is one of the centre’s top priorities because of a severe problem of overcrowding that often borders on the absurd.

Linda Arkwright, the centre’s capital campaign development officer, is responsible for finding the new building. Until recently, her office was located in a bathroom. Now, she works out of the centre’s food depot along with two other staff members.

Due to lack of space, the centre had to close its library. Every day, the centre offers free meals to 60 to 100 people, but there’s no where for them to sit.

There are no conference rooms and there’s nowhere for staff to meet with Natives in private to discuss confidential problems. The centre’s three-story house on Cote-des-Neiges provides 98 different services to its clients.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” says Linda. “You can’t work like this.”

But even the effort to find a new building has run into problems with the government, this time at city hall.

The centre’s staff has looked at 40 to 45 buildings over the last five years without finding an appropriate building. The problem in a lot of cases is not the building itself but a lack of cooperation from city hall.

The city has thrown up obstacles by saying that buildings the centre is interested in are not zoned for use by a non-profit group. Behind the lack of cooperation seems to lurk a lack of sensitivity to the needs of urban Natives.

“It’s unbelievable, their zoning laws,” said Linda. “I don’t think the previous administration at city hall realized the importance of the centre for urban aboriginals.”

Linda said one city employee asked her why the centre doesn’t look around for a building “where all the Natives hang out,” somewhere on Ste-Catherine St. “I think the city needs to be educated that not all aboriginal people live on reserves, not all aboriginal people drink,” said Linda.

She hopes the new city government elected in November will be more helpful.

The centre expects it will need $1.5 million for the new building. Neither Ottawa nor Quebec are willing to help out with any money, so the centre has been doing private fundraising. In two years, it has raised $100,000.