Canada’s Native Friendship Centres have found themselves left out in the cold once again with no new funding from this year’s federal budget. It would not however be such a big deal had they received any new money since 1998 or if their salaries were not based on a 1976 agreement for program delivery.

Peter Dinsdale, the National Association of Friendship Centres Executive Director, wasn’t particularly surprised that no new monies had been granted to the centres but he still found the move disturbing.

In that over 54 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal population now lives in urban areas, Friendship Centres have become the largest Aboriginal service-delivery infrastructure.

“It clearly puts pressures on the administration of all the centres across the country to operate strong community centres,” said Dinsdale, explaining what a stagnant budget has done over time while the cost of living has soared.

According to Dinsdale, on the lower end of the funding scale, smaller Friendship Centres receive $85,000 annually while the largest of the facilities get approximately $176,000.

Within that budget these centres are expected to pay for their building, heating, electricity, insurance, office expenses and the salaries of the three individuals required to run them – an executive director, a finance person and a receptionist. The rest of the staff is generally comprised of volunteers.

Because many of the centres cannot afford to pay their executive directors more than $40,000 annually, Dinsdale said that they are often run by inexperienced and new university graduates or those with failed careers who cannot find work elsewhere.

“In both instances we have less than strong administrative staff than we would like,” said Dinsdale. He was also quick to say that there are some wonderful individuals in those positions who simply do it out of dedication and personal devotion.

With weak administrative staffs, the facilities are no less at risk as the focus is off broadening the services to accommodate the rapid influx of Aboriginals to urban areas.

According to Dinsdale, this greatly affects the organization’s ability to conduct programs and to reach out to the community effectively, and to successfully negotiate contracts with other federal, provincial and municipal departments, agencies and NGOs.

“Friendship Centres should be urban ambassadors to welcome people in to have referrals to other programs or services, but there is a failure-to-thrive mentality that has been occurring (within the centres),” said Dinsdale.

Brett Pineau, the Director of the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal, personally feels the pinch of no new funding as his centre struggles to get by.

“We are struggling in any number of categories including continuing with our daily hot lunch which comes out of our core operating budget and directly affects the community. We have been fortunate in that we have been relying on donations to keep the lunch program going but it has been a challenge,” said Pineau.

At the time of this interview Pineau was still hopeful that funding could come in as pro errata increases on a going forward basis or even retroactively, but with the budget getting Liberal support on February 3, it is unlikely.

“The lack of increases since 1998 is definitely affecting us in terms of our ability to maintain our existing services, let alone a going-forward basis,” said Pineau.

Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre’s Executive Director Edith Cloutier felt that the lack of funding increases was indicative of the federal government’s level of concern for urban Aboriginals.

“When you look at the realities of Aboriginal people in terms of the increase of the population in urban settings we would think that this reality would be recognized by the different governments,” said Cloutier.

On a governmental level, Cloutier expressed that Friendship Centres required some rethinking as they are often viewed as expenses instead of investments.

She described how she sees many families and single mothers flock to Val-d’Or with the hopes of improving their quality of life. However, the reality they experience upon arrival is quite a different story.

“Once they are in the city they are confronted by other challenges such as isolation. Their support network has to be reconstructed. There is also poverty and discrimination in terms of finding apartments. When you look at a place like Val-d’Or, there is a very low rate of availability when it comes to apartments and that creates an enormous challenge for Aboriginal families,” said Cloutier.

While the situation looks bleak when it comes to new cash, Canada’s Friendship Centres are still hopeful that funding will come through one day.